Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish world — right now.
What is the tipping point between democracy and dictatorship? Why do some nations fall under one supreme leader’s sway? And what, actually, is the perfect storm that can turn a thriving democratic nation into a totalitarian nightmare?
“Economic ruin, war, massive immigration, no money, no water, no nothing… this is a recipe for a strong leader to take over and for the army to have a coup d’etat,” according to Dr. Yonatan Freeman, our guest on this week’s What Matters Now.
Freeman is an international relations and media expert who lectures at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem on national security, government and politics, Israel’s relations with the world and civil-military relations.
This week, the Brothers in Arms protest group is signing on thousands of IDF reservists to a document objecting to the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul, stating “We will not serve in a dictatorship.”
At the same time, hundreds are marching from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to build a tent city near the Knesset ahead of next week’s fateful vote on the Reasonableness Bill.
All of this is to prevent what they see as steps leading to a dictatorship.
However, unlike most Israelis you meet today, Freeman is passionately optimistic about the strong state of Israel’s democracy. So this week, we ask Dr. Yonatan Freeman, what matters now?
The following conversation has been lightly edited.
The Times of Israel: Yonatan, thank you so much for joining me today at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Dr. Yonatan Freeman: Glad to be here.
Such a pleasure to see you. I just got back myself from Africa, where I overheard so many conversations about dictatorships. And obviously this week we’re seeing people hitting the streets again, trying to prevent a dictatorship here in Israel. And so I ask you this week, Yonatan, what matters now?
I think what matters now is that we have various parts of society who are voicing their opinions on various [judicial] reforms that might come through. We’re seeing people in uniforms, seeing people without uniforms. And above all, we’re seeing that the future of this country is really important to many activists, ordinary individuals. And I think that really shows how democratic values are something that is in the minds of many who live here.
I have to admit that I’ve always respected the idea of protests against the judicial overhaul and those who are pushing it as well. But I never internalized the existential fear that people have until I actually witnessed what life was like under dictatorships, there in Africa. And people are jolly, and people are living their lives, but there are certain topics they won’t talk about. There are certain things that they know are taboo. There’s, of course, bribery that’s rife throughout the countries. And so let’s first of all, define what is a dictatorship?
Well, I think in the end, the main thing about dictatorship is that the one who dictates the way the regime works is not the people, it’s those who are in power, who most likely didn’t get there through the ballot box. They may have gotten there through bullets. And above all, it’s a nation of rulers and not of laws.
The second thing is really also about the freedoms that individuals have to express themselves in different things, whether it be the media, whether it be verbally in other places, in schools and in academia. And I think the third main attribute of a dictatorship is that the power, often in terms of the military, is something that gives the orders, not the other way around. And I think that one major attribute of a dictatorship is that it’s not the people who tell those who have the power what to do. It’s the other way around.
So here in Israel, it’s a little confusing to me because our army is, of course, an army of citizens, and parts of the army — reservists — are now protesting against the government and refusing to serve. Not yet refusing direct orders to serve, but refusing to volunteer to serve. So could this be considered some kind of semi-military coup?
Well, I don’t think so. I think that we have to be very careful about characterizing what’s going on today. In one of my lectures, I was just talking about it today, actually. Many of the tools that protesters have today, even those from within the military, were unavailable during previous times in our history. Think about all the new media, social media, all these different things. So when one makes the conclusion like, this is the most protest we’ve ever seen, and look what’s going on, we have to understand that the megaphone that they have today is much larger than what was available in the past. So, I’m very careful to subscribe to the opinion that this is the most we’ve ever seen and that we’ve never seen it before.
I’m not so certain about that. I’m also not certain that the types of things we’re hearing from the military are, on a large scale, like many people feel. From what I’ve been seeing in the media and different reports, most of what has been announced in terms of actions are those who haven’t been called up. In other words, they’re saying: “If they call me up, I won’t be getting up,” rather than someone being called up and not coming, which is very minimal from what I’ve been hearing.
And I think that Israelis have proven that in times of trouble, we leave our politics at home and we come to defend the country. And we know what’s going on right now in the North. We know those Hezbollah tents, there’s Iran, all these different things. Within seconds, and we all know seconds in the Middle East, especially in Israel, there can be a major change. Within seconds, we can have a major operation that causes everyone to suit up and go to battle. And I think that even though it might seem that that has been broken, that system of being called up and defending the country is broken, I think that when push comes to shove, we will still see those individuals coming. And there’s always the joke and not a joke, it’s really a funny story that when we have an emergency, all the people that we haven’t seen in a while — “I was on a trip. I didn’t want to come today.” — everyone shows up. We’ve never seen them before, and they show up exactly when they are needed.
Okay, that’s a great insight into the Israeli psyche and personality, shall we say, of the country. But at the same time, it’s so divided right now, and the rhetoric is at such a hateful point that this idea of our prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, being a dictator is basically a slogan that’s been going on, of course, before the judicial overhaul protests. Of course, there were the Balfour protests too, but this idea of a “dictatorship” is just not going away in any way.
Yeah, I agree that this is something that has stuck, but I think, and we all know about this sentence, the moment you say it’s a dictatorship and nothing happens to you, I think that really negates this description.
I actually think the opposite, we’re not looking at Netanyahu specifically, but over the years, even since our founding, I think that Israel has become more democratic. I think if you look at some of the things we have on the books, like emergency laws — you know within a second I don’t have to talk to a judge or anyone, I can take someone’s property, I can put them in jail forever. Different things that we have, different tools which are less and less used by the government, doesn’t matter who it is. Even when it comes to control by the government of different parts of the economy, privatization. It used to be, whenever you wanted to go abroad at Ben-Gurion Airport, if you were in reserves, you would have to get approval from the military to go to Cyprus for a vacation. Today you don’t have to talk to anyone. And if you look at the media, look at all the media, that’s new. There was in the past just one channel. Now we have dozens.
So I think it is true. And kudos to their advisors and everyone. I think it’s working in terms of the political opposition, and I have no beef with them. That’s what they’re supposed to do in the end. They’re supposed to want and try to campaign to replace him, to be elected themselves. That’s what they’re supposed to do. And it seems that in this battle, they’ve really focused on an attribute that is bringing more results. In other words, “it’s not that we have a better plan, it’s that his plan is a dictatorial plan and that’s why you should oppose him.”
And I think if you look at the polls, recent polls, you see that Benny Gantz, for example, he’s rising in the polls in terms of his approval and also his ability to be prime minister in the future. It’s helping them. And I think that if you really asked them without the media, without the audience looking at it, I think they would agree with what I’m saying. But on the other hand, they would agree that what they’re saying publicly is something that’s helping them in their quest to be in the government. That’s their purpose. That’s what democracy is all about.
You’re talking about the political opposition, but what we’re seeing more and what’s capturing more of the headlines is, of course, the grassroots opposition. They are not, as of yet, a political party, from what I understand. They don’t truly have plans to become one, at least in the meantime. And elections aren’t even on the horizon — so far. But I would wonder, what about this rhetoric that is a different situation.
I think that many of those have many opinions in terms of what’s going on in the judicial reforms and judicial laws that they want to be passed. But if you look at the messaging in terms of their explanations as to why they opposed it, if you look at it, a lot of it is the explanation that the opposition is giving them, in terms of their explaining.
I mean, have they gone and read the actual proposal? Have they seen it? Who told them about it? And again, there might be here and there [people who are informed], but I’m saying a lot of them are really there because they’re sticking to the issue of the dictatorship characterization. In other words, some of the leaders have said, even if this one of the reforms, the ones that’s coming up, is not pushed forward, they’re still going to be there. Meaning, if it’s all dictatorship and what they’re saying is true, what does it matter if this law is being passed or not? It’s still Netanyahu. So I’m not certain that it really has to do with these reforms.
It has to do, again, with the kind of branding that is now working for them. And actually, I would even say that those who support these reforms, I think I saw one of the parliament members in an interview today or yesterday. They were asking her, why do you want to continue with it? And now she’s saying: “Because of these protests, that’s why.” It’s not because of all the reforms. What we really see is, “It’s because we want to put it in their faces and we’re going to do it because of that.” So then the interviewee says: “So there is no real reason, it’s just to show them what we can do.”
So I think that on both sides, there’s a lot of rhetoric, as you state, and we’re moving away from an actual objective debate as to what is being planned or what wants to be pushed forward. And it’s becoming more about who is more for democracy. And by the way, even those who are for it, these reforms, they’re saying this will help democracy. In other words, they’re saying we are against the dictatorship as well, not Netanyahu as the other side claims, but the dictatorship of the legal system.
Both of these are very totalitarian views, it sounds like to me. I mean, from both sides, we’re seeing totalitarianism, we must get rid of Prime Minister Netanyahu entirely, or we must negate the other side, those who object to the judicial overhaul, entirely.
Right, I think that if one thing that we’re seeing here is really the information and where it’s coming from, and I think that, especially when it comes to legal jargon and different things, most people have a hard time understanding what it means. I mean, I’m seeing headlines, it will cancel this ability. Another headline, it will weaken the ability. No one even knows what it is exactly. And I think that everyone is really stuck in the moment. And again, they have the tools to do so. They have the megaphone, they have the Facebook, they have the TikTok, all these things.
And I can even say that it will be harder for the leaders, even in the opposition, if they even strike a deal with Netanyahu about this to get those people to go home, it might be very difficult for them to do it. And I even think that some of them really maybe support some of the things and they want to get their compromise, but they know that the people in the streets don’t want them to do so.
So until now, we’ve talked about Israel as is, and so the question of course, is Israel as it could be. Now, were these overhaul legislations to pass, do you still see that Israel would be the thriving democracy it is?
Well, I think for one, even if it doesn’t work out, the next government can cancel it. It’s not as if we’re doing a law and you can never cancel it. And we have many times in this country, new governments that have come to power and changed laws that have been passed by the previous government. And we have a lot of elections in this country, as you know. So a new election is coming up, probably very soon, unlike other countries, which might be even more difficult to do.
So if you look at the United States, different opinions of the Supreme Court on abortions, different things, and Biden might not like it, but he can’t do anything about it. And even if he wanted to do something about it, in terms of the power of the Supreme Court, think about changing the Constitution of the United States. That’s going to take, I think the last time was like in the early 90s, and that was something that took like years, decades.
So for one, they can change it, and it could also be that they change it because it’s not working out as they expected. Just to give one example to your listeners, we had, and this is something that many political scientists have studied in the direct election of a prime minister if you recall. And we never had this anywhere in the world where you vote for the parliament and the prime minister at the same time. And you know why they did it? They did it to improve democracy. That was the actual reasoning. But some people said: “Oh, this will cause a dictatorship.” That’s what they said back then, and then they did it. And they also stated this will increase stability and this will be good. And later everyone agreed, even those who proposed it, it was a bad idea, bad idea, and they canceled it. We only had three elections when they did it.
So with all this criticism, I argued that the criticism could even come from those who supported it and say this was not what we expected, it was a bad idea and we got to change it. That’s number one.
Number two, again, even when it comes to Israel and the future, I think if you look at the values that people have, Israel’s civil society has continued to increase its democratic values. If you look at all the different things that are happening with the rights of women that have increased over the years in Israel. You look at gay rights, which have increased. We just had this week the IDF nominated new generals and everything and we will have the first time ever, in the IDF, a member of that community as the Chief Medical Officer. And we also have Amir Ohana, who’s the Speaker of the Knesset, who’s a member of the gay community as well. And that’s during a time when the government is seen as fighting gay rights here in Israel.
So I think that if you look at the actual values, you look at the culture, you look at the wishes of the Jewish and non-Jewish population of Israel, it’s all pointing to more and more democracy. It doesn’t matter who’s there and what they think, that’s where they’re aiming. So even if they had these draconian tools, which again, I told you we have them right now, they’re less and less being used because no one wants to use them. And I argue that if we had that concern that maybe this will lead to something like that, I want to see proof. Show me when has it been done, when have we used those kinds of things.
And if you look at Netanyahu as the leader as well, and he’s our longest-serving prime minister ever, I always ask, show me measures in terms of policies, not in terms of members of his cabinet who every day can say something that’s easy to say. I always talk about how there’s one prime minister in theory, but it’s like 15. Every one of them wants to be prime minister. It’s not like in the White House, Biden says it and we don’t even know what the name of the secretary is. He doesn’t even talk. Here, they all talk all day long.
So when it comes to policy and substance, Netanyahu has been here the longest ever. Show me actual policies, in the field, which have curtailed democratic rights for the country, and even using the tools that are available in his hand. He can fire the legal advisor to the government in one hour. He hasn’t done it. He could pass now, he has 64 right? He can pass all the laws for [Shas head] Aryeh Deri to return [to the government] everything. He’s not doing it. And that really shows that it’s very important to focus on what the policies are in the end and the history of undemocratic behavior.
Okay, so let’s talk about the history of undemocratic behavior with one of the countries I visited last week, Uganda. You mentioned gay rights. There aren’t any. For example, you mentioned being voted in. He was voted in — President Yoweri Museveni — but in 1986. Now there’s no real way that he’ll be voted out. I don’t know if he’s ever been voted in again. I’m not sure if people are voting for him, but he’s not going to be voted out. How did this come to pass there?
Well, I think you have to look at the history. And if you look at Israel and Israelis, I think that if you look around the world, all the history, everything, the population here in terms of our DNA, very much knows, in its most drastic terms, what the results of dictatorship can be. Not just talking about Nazi Germany, you can also think about the USSR. We know, we know, and everyone knows someone or is someone who came from those sorts of societies. So I think we know who we want not to be.
And if you look at other countries in Africa, which throughout history were not places of democracy, places which were exploited, various empires, you just look at a map, see how straight the lines are, all the borders and all those lines lead not to democracy. So they don’t have that history. They don’t have that DNA in terms of a history of democratic values. So there’s a longer process that has to be made there when it comes to their building of democracy, building of civil society. So when it comes to elections, sure, elections [can happen], but that’s just one part of democracy.
There’s other things that have to do with that when it comes to freedoms of expression, religion and elections. In North Korea, they have elections, 101%. Even the dead vote for Kim Jong-Un. That’s not democracy. They even have the word democracy in their official name. So I think when you look at a continent like Africa, I think that most of those countries still have a lot of work to do in terms of building a civil society. Building the mindset not of: “I need a vote in the ballot,” but the mindset that democracy is something that can help us in different parts of society, whether it be economically, or culturally.
And I think that if you look at over the years, the relationship that Israel has with Africa, and actually it was Netanyahu who started the “African strategy” a few years ago and visited many countries in Africa, including Uganda, where his brother [Yoni] fell in Entebbe. Recently we had that anniversary on July 4. And I think that part of the reasoning that Israel is doing it is not so much to improve business and sell things and everything else, but I think that we understand and Israel is happy when democracy is on the rise in the world.
I think that Israel understands that the more tools we give to these countries to fight poverty, to fight droughts, different things, that will also be able to strengthen civil society, because and if you look at the research, the more people that are active in this kind of initiatives in the country are those who aren’t hungry, are those who have an education. So the more you improve their livelihood, so you will improve the chances for democracy in those countries as well.
Now, this week, we heard that Israel is officially recognizing Western Sahara as being under Moroccan sovereignty. And this is a controversial move, one that we suspected would happen because of the Abraham Accords, et cetera. But how are we viewed on the international stage after doing something like that?
Well, I think we have to first mention that the actual hinting, or announcement, that we’re going to be doing it, was actually done by the previous government, Bennett-Lapid. We had the Minister of Interior, Ayelet Shaked, travel to Morocco, and there she announced it. Part of the, as you mentioned, the Abraham Accords, was that the United States would recognize the Western Sahara, the Trump Administration. And by the way, the Biden administration has continued as we speak, with that policy. It hasn’t rescinded it or anything.
But I think that, and this actually connects to what’s going on right now in terms of the US-Israeli relationship. Right now, the United States and Israel, are the only countries in the world, apart from Morocco who recognize that territory. And I think that, first off, shows the relationship that Israel has with the United States and that it’s very close and we take into account the desires and orientation that we have as being in a pro-American camp. And on the other hand, we also seek to improve relations with Morocco. And I think that part of what we’re doing here is also trying to sow the seeds for additional agreements with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world, in the African continent, because that’s not the only country that has territorial disputes.
And many countries expect that when we sign an agreement with them, we will also recognize their borders as well. I mean, we’re always telling them, recognize the Golan Heights, recognize Jerusalem, so who are we to tell them that they’re incorrect when it comes to Western Sahara? That’s what they say. So who am I to say something else? It will be something not correct to do. For years, and if you think about the country, which for decades has the biggest issue when it comes to borders and recognizing your capital for embassies, Israel. I don’t know any other country that if you look at their maps, it says there’s a little asterisk: “We don’t really agree or something.” No other country. So I think it’s really something that we’re doing on three levels. One, relations with America. Two, relations with Morocco. Number three, the future relations with other countries who also have different measures in borders and other challenges that they want us to accept as well.
Okay, so we’ve been talking about dictators and borders, so let’s talk about Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. We’re in a very complicated situation right now. Putin is, I would say, a dictator, and we have traditionally had some pretty good relations with him. But right now we’re in a bit of a muddle because we also want to have good relations with our fellow Jew, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. So how do you define this situation?
I think that, first off, relations with America are the most important of all. If you go to the Foreign Ministry, maybe you’ve been there at their news conferences there in the building, they have a placard on the wall in the back — the objectives of the Foreign Ministry of Israel. And the first or second one is: to maintain good relations with America. It’s the only one with a country on the list. So that’s number one. That’s always been, always will be, no matter who’s here and who’s over there.
But we also have good relations with Russia. I think that Israel is number one in the world, in terms of percentage of the population, that have links to Russia or the former Soviet Union. Almost a 9th or 10th of the population, a million, almost, are related. And we know there are big Jewish communities still in Russia, so we have very important relations with them. Also, security relations when it comes to Syria, and different things.
But on the other hand, as I said, we’re part of the West. We support the West, we’re observers in NATO. And right now, there’s a current war in a country that the West supports. And I think that Israel, as we know, has been very careful to take sides.
But I think there are two other things that are going on as well. Number one, I think that if you look at Israel as a Western country, I think that it’s the number one Western country that has good relations both with America and Russia at the same time. I can’t think of any, no other country that can pick up a telephone to the Kremlin and they’ll answer immediately, just like we would call the White House. No one, even Biden can do it. They won’t answer. But they will take the call from Israel.
So I think with all the criticism, and here and there by Europe, maybe in America: “What are you doing?” I think behind the scenes, they like it. And the reason is, that way we can be a mediator. That way we can still have respect from Putin. That way we can pass messages over there, and they can pass messages over here. And we don’t even need an interpreter. We have enough Russian speakers in the government. We can do it, no problem. They need an interpreter. And so that’s number one.
And there were reports about that in terms of mediation. Some reports claimed it’s not working. I think otherwise, I think it continues. And the fact that Ukraine and their ambassador here in Israel, that every second is releasing a statement condemning Israel, I think that shows a lot in terms of how we may be a mediator because they’re trying to sound off and influence the mediation. That’s why they’re doing it. They’re hearing something else.
Number two, we also know that as the war is continuing, almost two years already, Iran continues to increase its foothold in Ukraine. And I think that we can see a connection, that the stronger Iran’s presence is on the battlefield, the stronger we’re supporting those who are opposing Iran because they’re helping Russia. And there are different things going on here behind the scenes, and we are now assisting Ukraine more and more. Soon your listeners will probably see the report that we’re going to be putting out a Code Red system in Ukraine to warn them of incoming missiles. By the way, it’s not the Code Red system we have in Israel because we don’t want it to go there, to Iran or someone. It’s a different thing. But we’re going to be doing that.
We’re treating their soldiers who are injured in hospitals in Israel. There’s been reports just recently that we’re going to be allowing arms to go somewhere, to a third country that maybe from there will be getting into the Ukraine. So we are doing it more and more.
And I think I would also add this as well, just what we’re talking about before in terms of our history. Israel, I’d say in terms of our people here, we are also aware of the very bad results that could be when it comes to world war. We know it from all the people. And I think that part of our reasoning to be a mediator is that we don’t want a World War III. World War III will be bad news for Israel, for the Jewish people. Based upon the past, we know what could happen. So I think part of that is not just what the West desires, it’s also what we desire. And we’re very concerned. And by the way, Netanyahu, before he was elected, he was talking in interviews about that, how we’re very concerned about nuclear war, those sorts of things. And unfortunately, it seems that the war is getting worse and worse in terms of the ramifications.
So I think that as that continues, Israel will seek to try to mediate more and more. And number two, as Iran continues its fighting there, Israel will increase its support to those fighting Tehran.
You’ve mentioned Iran several times in our conversation. And if America is our best friend, the one that we must have good relations with, would you say on that list in the Foreign Ministry there could be space for Iran being the exact opposite?
I think that Israel has no quarrel with the Iranian people. We know in the past we had very good relations with Iranian individuals. With Iran, we have no problem. And I think if you took a real poll in Iran, who’s against Israel? I think most would not be if it’s a real free democratic poll — if we had it. But we could say that Iran is the greatest threat right now. We know that the IDF even has a general now in charge of the Iranian threat. And Iran is also an actor which brings a lot of instability to the region in terms of the terrorist groups that it supports in Gaza, southern Lebanon and other places in Yemen, different places.
And I think that it’s also a threat that is bringing Israel closer to other countries in the Arab and Muslim world who also see Iran as a threat. If you think about Saudi Arabia, which we’ll have to see what happens very soon, they’re threatened by Iran as well. And yeah, sure, we have now relations improving between the two, but that doesn’t say that. So they opened an embassy. It doesn’t say anything about Iran not being an enemy at all. It’s still an enemy. Maybe this is very smart too: using an embassy, you know, all those “cultural attaches,” they’re not really “cultural attaches,” they’re going to go do something else there. So I think it’s very good.
And just recently we had high-profile visits to Azerbaijan, which is on the border of Iran. We had the President, we had the Minister of Defence. There was even an attack that was going to be made on the Israeli embassy in Azerbaijan, which is the closest Israeli embassy to Iran, about, I think, 15 kilometers. So Iran is a major threat and that’s more apparent to the Arab and Muslim world and also to Europe in America.
So I think that if you look at Israel, it’s continuing to position itself as the leading coalition builder against Iran in the world. And I would even argue the country with the most experience, actual experience in the field of fighting Iran other than any other country in the world.
We’ve spent most of our conversation talking about dictators, dictatorships, and countries that have them. And I just want to ask you what, in your opinion, is the freest, the least dictatorial country in the world?
Well, I think it would be how you define it. I think if you look at different think tanks, many of them would probably classify those in northern Europe, think places like Sweden, those kinds of places. Well, they have ABBA, so that makes sense.
But I think it really depends on how you see it. I think that if you would ask the question of which democracy in the world has faced the most challenges and the type of recipe for dictatorship and has not gone that way ever, I would say it’s Israel. Because if you look at all the different events, economic ruin, war, massive immigration, no money, no water, no nothing, you would think this is a recipe for a strong leader to take over and everything, and the army for having a coup d’etat and everything else, and the opposite.
So I think if you look at the democracy that has the most challenges in the world in its history, I can think of any other country with that kind of challenge, I can’t think of another one, that has still maintained democratic governance and even became even freer. I would say number one in the world is Israel.
Brilliant. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you very much.
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