Princeton Research Gains New Life as Israel Faces Challenges to Democracy

David Pavlak, SPIA
Middle East
Head shot of Kim Lane Scheppele SPIA professor Kim Lane Scheppele

As pro-democracy protests sweep across Israel, it is a 2018 scholarly article from a Princeton School of Public and International Affairs professor that foreshadows the country’s potential autocratic future while thousands demand change before it’s too late.

“Autocratic Legalism,” written by Kim Lane Scheppele and first published in The University of Chicago Law Review, is receiving praise as a “must-read” in Israeli media for its multi-step approach to spotting autocracy. The article detailed how these leaders “use their democratic mandates to launch legal reforms that remove the checks on executive power, limit the challenges to their rule, and undermine the crucial accountability institutions of a democratic state,” Scheppele wrote.

In July, Scheppele’s article was translated into Hebrew and made into a book featuring an essay by Yonatan Levi, an Israeli political scientist, who connected Scheppele’s analysis of the way that democracy is destroyed by law to the events now occurring in Israel. The book received fulsome praise, garnering a positive review in Haaretz and selling out its first two printings.

“Open coups with the military in charge and tanks in the street are no longer the usual way that democracies fail,” said Scheppele, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs. “Instead, the new autocrats are elected, often taking advantage of weaknesses in the election law to turn minority support into majority governance. Once elected, the autocrats then change the law to enact the program that they promised. It doesn’t look dangerous until you look at the content of these laws. When the major checks on executive power are removed, that’s when democracy is in danger.”

The Israeli protests have been sparked by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to overhaul the country’s judicial system, including new laws that weaken the Supreme Court’s power. “The Israeli government is saying that no other government allows its judiciary to screen ministerial appointments for ‘reasonableness,’” Scheppele said. “That may be true, but it is because other governments have different checks on executive discretion. Israel has a unicameral parliamentary system in which the prime minister automatically has support for his programs in the Knesset, so Israel lodges the power to check executive discretion elsewhere in the courts. The democratic opposition needs to learn about these autocratic tricks that loosen constraints on the executive.”

An opposition lawmaker has also read excerpts from the book in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, to give a new voice to their argument against the proposed laws.

“Those under anti-democratic attack must recognize the symptoms of autocracy and how to resist,” Scheppele said. “The democratic opposition in Israel has learned how autocrats appear to legitimize what they do by pointing out — misleadingly so — that they are only copying what other democracies do.”

In response to Netanyahu’s proposals, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in a show of displeasure and defiance, and members of the Israel Defense Forces have threatened to stop serving, possibly weakening military preparedness.

“I have been working with the democratic opposition to ensure that the Netanyahu government does not dismantle the few checks left on its powers,” Scheppele said. “I am under no illusions that the status quo was ever a true democracy. Still, preventing things from getting worse is worth the effort, and I hope my book is at least contributing to that.”