The Israeli protests: What’s happened and what’s likely to come
Monday, March 27 was supposed to be a red-letter day for the new far-right Israeli coalition government, when it planned to slide through the Knesset the central provision of its “judicial overhaul” bill, comfortably ahead of the Passover recess beginning on April 2. Instead, it ended up being one of the most extraordinary days in Israeli history. Spurred by the “firing” of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant by Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu the evening before, the demonstrations against the overhaul, which had been building in intensity for over two months, became overwhelming. Universities, businesses, Ben-Gurion Airport, and Israel’s embassies and consulates abroad were all closed down in protest, and a general strike was scheduled for the following day. Air Force reserve pilots and other security personnel on whom the military heavily relies were threatening to not report for training or duty. In the face of this completely unprecedented protest, Netanyahu announced he would suspend the bill’s progress “to try to reach a broad agreement during the next Knesset session,” which begins on May 1.
The announcement was delayed while Bibi worked out a deal with one of his coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of national security and head of the neo-Kahanist Jewish Power Party, to organize a new “National Guard,” which, its opponents charge, would constitute “a paramilitary organization that would operate inside Israel in times of crisis, mainly to deal with rioting and nationalist incidents involving Israeli Arabs.” They view it as a new reason not to compromise. Nevertheless, dialogue has already begun with the Knesset opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.
Netanyahu was unquestionably forced to make the postponement concession by the massive outpouring of protest; one poll showed that two-thirds of the Israeli public was against the legislation in its current form. Nevertheless, his entire coalition supports the reform in its current form. Even Minister of Defense Gallant, who is apparently remaining in office since he was not given the requisite legal notice, stressed that his call for delay stemmed solely from fear of damage to Israel’s military preparedness after thousands of Israel Defense Forces reservists threatened not to show up for duty. The handful of coalition MKs, all from Likud, who had indicated reservations about proceeding immediately, were likewise aboard in principle. This may make the negotiations difficult, if not impossible.
Dialogue, of course, is the civilized way to proceed, but finding a solution even remotely palatable to all is made significantly more difficult by the disparate composition of the coalition, in which Netanyahu holds less power and influence than in any of the previous five governments he headed. His four coalition partners are ideologically driven and all have very different visions of Israel’s society and priorities than do most Israelis or, in fact, than did Netanyahu himself during most of his political career. Moreover, with the increasing polarization of Israeli society during the last decade, the non-Arab Israeli parties have now formed into two solid blocs, usually called right and left, but they are more accurately described as “never-Bibi” and “pro-Bibi if he does what we want.” However, neither his partners nor his opponents retain any trust in Bibi’s word, and there is considerable suspicion he may push the reforms through unaltered. Thus, despite his promise to delay the bill and negotiate with the opposition, the regular Saturday night demonstration attracted as many — or more — Israelis as the previous ones.
Concurrence on neutering the Supreme Court
While the genesis of the current crisis is complex, its way was paved by Netanyahu’s desperate attempts to end his ongoing corruption trial and Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s deep ideological commitment to shattering the existing judicial system by making it “more democratic,” i.e., rendering the Supreme Court powerless to invalidate laws passed by the Knesset majority. But the overhaul has received crucial support from a coalition of three distinct minority groups in Israeli society with their own political goals or grievances, all in the pro-Bibi bloc:
- The two Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) parties, which want to block the Supreme Court’s repeated rejection of their blanket exemption from military service, exempt their schools from minimum education requirements, increase state support for yeshiva students, as well as remove the Court’s ban on Shas party Chair Aryeh Deri from serving as a minister because of two convictions for corruption.
- Extremist settlers and supporters in the Jewish Power and Religious Zionism parties, who want to remove any legal obstacles to increased settlement, permit the annexation of part or all of the West Bank, and prevent punishment for atrocities like the recent settler pogrom in the West Bank village of Hawara, as well as make Israel “more Jewish.” While there has been an extreme anti-Arab right wing in Israel since at least the 1980s, this is the first time they have been part of a government, with their leaders in significant positions of power. They view the Supreme Court as their main obstacle, though it has only occasionally blocked settler activities in the West Bank.
- The Kohelet Forum, a well-financed think tank that has gained significant influence in Israeli right-wing circles in recent years, which is pushing for the removal of legal norms preventing the adoption of American libertarian principles foreign to Israel. Their influence is primarily in the Likud.
Deep cultural/political roots
The broader impetus for these reforms has both a larger cultural context as well as a more political one. They emerge from a cultural polarization that has been building since the 1950s and a political tension evident since at least the time of Israel’s First Lebanon War in 1982. They can also be understood in the context of the decade-old worldwide movement toward populism and away from liberal democracy, with distinctive Israeli characteristics.
The cultural context harkens back to the immigration to Israel in the 1950s of “Eastern Jews” (Mizrahim) from Arab and Muslim countries, over a million of whom arrived in Israel during the 1950s and 1960s, trebling Israel’s population. It is now generally recognized that they were demeaned and disparaged by officials from the then-hegemonic Labor movement, and Mizrahim are still, on average, less educated and wealthy compared to Ashkenazim (Jews of Central and Eastern European ancestry). Overwhelming Mizrahi support for the right-wing Likud party was a principal factor in its victory of 1977 and control of the premiership for 33 of the subsequent 45 years. All these governments were coalitions — no Israeli party has ever won an outright majority — generally with the participation of the two ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties, the National Religious (settler-dominated) party, and one or another centrist party that enabled Netanyahu to play one side against the other.
Despite this fairly consistent political control, the single most important theme of Likud messaging has been opposition to the alleged (and partially real) “Ashkenazi”- and “leftist”-dominated Israeli establishment. This theme has been especially pronounced during the 22 years of Netanyahu’s leadership of the party (though all Likud chairmen have been Ashkenazim who rose to power within the country’s traditional power structures). The claims of elite domination have reached a crescendo in recent months and are now being put forward as the principal justification for the judicial reforms.
Likud/Mizrahi complaints of being shut out of the Israeli power structure are not entirely unfounded, despite Likud’s control of the government, today and over the past four decades. There is no doubt that secular, moderately liberal Ashkenazim dominate the academic, legal, military, cultural, and business elites — obviously some more than others. However, the particular bête noir of the Haredim, the settler religious right, and the personal concern of Netanyahu and Deri is the courts, especially the Supreme Court, because that is the sole institution capable of blocking their disparate objectives. Protesters — and most of the Israeli establishment — see it as the critical — and sole — body exercising any check on the government and Knesset majority, given the absence of a written constitution, a second legislative chamber, a federal system, or any other such institution, one or more of which is present in virtually every other democratic country.
The protesters are similarly, or perhaps even more, disparate than the “reformists.” Their core is indeed the educated Ashkenazi middle class, but also contains wide swathes of virtually all other social groups in the country with the exception of Israeli Palestinians, who would indeed be hard hit by the overhaul but who largely regard this as an intra-Jewish dispute. The protest organizers have been at pains to emphasize the non-ideological and non-left-wing nature of the protests, hence the ubiquitous Israeli flags and the absence of Palestinian ones. Of course the left is intimately involved and hopes these protests against the right will help to revive its depleted fortunes. The left sees the occupation as the root cause of the right’s insistence on the overhaul, and expects that Arab parties will be among the first victims of an empowered right if the reforms are enacted.
Difficulties in reaching a compromise
Technically, a compromise agreement including some of the “reforms” but leaving a viable system of checks and balances in place could easily be reached. However, this is unlikely, primarily because the two religious Zionist parties, Jewish Power and Religious Zionism, are ideologically committed to fundamental changes that the Supreme Court would certainly block. In addition, Justice Minister Levin and a few others in the Likud seem unalterably committed to the full overhaul, undercutting Netanyahu’s announced willingness to negotiate. The two Haredi parties may, however, be more flexible, as they have no commitment to the secular Israeli state and usually are able to obtain what they need through the political process.
The only person in a position to transform the political debate and completely change its terms is Prime Minister Netanyahu himself. There has long been speculation that he could be offered a “get out of jail free card” by the prosecution in his ongoing trial on corruption charges, specifying that the charges would be dropped if he foreswore political activity. The opposition has no doubt that his main reason for staying in power is to change the Court and legal system sufficiently as to avoid any chance of conviction, which he indignantly denies. Some have recently speculated that the humiliation of being forced to change his mind and accept the postponement may drive him to accept the plea bargain.
While chances still seem against that happening, if he did accept it, that would immediately transform the political map of Israel. A number of right-wing politicians have left Likud and the rightist bloc over the years because of their treatment by him — and they were part of the recently deposed, unwieldy 18-month “Government of Change,” which contained left, right, and centrist elements (all of the rightists and many of the centrists were ex-Netanyahu partners and supporters). Were Netanyahu to be out of the picture, a center-right coalition could be formed, perhaps even without new elections, that could pass an amended judicial reform package, presumably limiting the damage to checks and balances. The far right would be left out in the cold, the Haredim would join, and the tattered Israeli left would possibly be strengthened but would still be small.
However, no one currently believes that is likely to happen. Claims have been made that Netanyahu has promised the hard-liners in his coalition that he won’t compromise, in which case there is little doubt that the demonstrations will be renewed, although whether they will be strengthened or weakened by the delay can’t be predicted. Minister Levin has promised large counter-demonstrations as well, heightening the likelihood of violence, some of which has already started. In fact, the most controversial provisions have already passed their preliminary “readings,” and could be approved on 24-hour notice once the Knesset returns.
Besides the opposition in the street, the new provisions would immediately be brought before the Supreme Court, which would almost certainly declare them invalid, leading inevitably to a full-bore constitutional crisis based on the Court declaring invalid the legislation that purported to strip it of that power. Commanders of many of Israel’s security branches have already intimated that in such a contest of legitimacy, they would go with the Supreme Court rather than the government.
Of course, this crisis is not taking place in a vacuum. The day after Bibi backed down, President Joe Biden warned that he “cannot continue down this road,” leading to charges of interference in Israel’s internal affairs. Closer to home, Bibi’s grandiose hopes of widespread Israeli-Arab peace based on the 2020 Abraham Accords are crumbling or, at the least, have entered a deep freeze. The United Arab Emirates cancelled a scheduled visit by Netanyahu in January, just after his government was formed, while Jordan was deeply upset by remarks that Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich made denying the existence of a Palestinian people (something the Israeli government formally recognized in 1993), while standing on a stage festooned with a banner showing Israel’s borders as including not only the West Bank but Jordan as well.
Moreover, the big prize Netanyahu hoped to bring into the Abraham Accords, namely Saudi Arabia, has closed the door on them, at least for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the kingdom’s recent China-brokered resumption of ties with Iran is a poke in Israel’s eye (as well as that of the U.S.), besides attenuating one of the main reasons for Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, namely, fear of Iran.
Despite the gravity of the situation, some Israelis, at least on the protesters’ side, found reasons for optimism, apart from whether or not the overhaul would go through. Unlike many other countries in which populist regimes have enfeebled political and civil liberties — Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Russia, and India are only a partial list — Israelis chanting “De-mo-kra-tia” poured out onto the streets for months, while senior retired military, business, and civic leaders, as well as all manner of civil society institutions, declared their opposition to the overhaul, with some, such as high-tech venture capitalists, able to convincingly warn of serious consequences. This will presumably serve as a warning and check on any future governments, left or right, showing authoritarian tendencies.
Even those hoping Israel will change its stance on the conflict with the Palestinians drew some comfort from the massive demonstrations, hoping that they could portend a new vision of democracy, despite the left’s dismal showing in recent elections. That, however, remains to be seen.
Paul Scham is the director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland (UMD), a professor of Israel Studies at UMD, and a non-resident scholar at MEI. He is a former member of the Israeli Bar.
Photo by Saeed Qaq/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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