Israelis Are Trying to Save a Democracy That Never Existed

Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

For the last three months, Israelis have been taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands, on a weekly basis, to protest what they see as the far-right government’s regime coup—a plan (which it has already begun implementing) to subordinate the judicial system and change the system of governance to the point that all checks and balances on those in power are removed.

The plan is being led by a prime minister on trial for corruption in three separate cases, while Israel continues to hold millions of Palestinians under occupation with an agenda to further entrench its control. Each party in the Israeli government has specific and explicit goals that the various laws in this judicial overhaul package would serve.

Israel Could Be Headed for a Cold Civil War

For the ultra-Orthodox parties, it’s primarily about ensuring their constituency does not have to serve in the military. (They study Jewish religious law instead.) In 2017, Israel’s Supreme Court struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox seminary students from conscription in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on grounds it perpetuates inequality. For the Shas Party specifically, it is also about circumventing existing law to enable its head, Aryeh Deri, to serve as a minister despite several recent convictions of tax fraud.

For the religious, nationalist, racist, far-right parties—Jewish Power and Religious Zionism, both headed by settlers who are now senior ministers in government—it’s about extending Israeli sovereignty over all occupied territory, what they call the Land of Israel, and making public institutions more religious.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling right-wing Likud party, it’s also about continuing to expand Israel’s settlement enterprise, consolidate power over media, culture, and public institutions—and for Netanyahu, it is about assuming enough control over the courts, through appointing judges, to evade conviction.

In essence, what the parties that comprise this government all share is the determination to create and shape new laws that serve their narrow interests, even if they violate the rule of law as is commonly understood in democracies both in Israel and abroad, trample certain rights, and shatter liberal democratic norms.

In other words, they seek to legalize those illegal actions that further their interests.

Protests against the contentious judicial overhaul of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 18, 2023.

Protests against the contentious judicial overhaul of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 18, 2023.

Oren Alon/Reuters

The act of creating new laws in order to serve its interests on the ground is precisely what Israel has been doing for 56 years as an occupying power. Since it conquered the West Bank, Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip in 1967, the government, through its military and legal experts, created an entirely novel and distinct legal framework to implement long-term military rule over an occupied population that is in line with the “rule of law” as it always defined it, with the Supreme Court’s imprimatur, and thus the norm.

The unprecedented protests taking place across the country are largely ignoring this fact. They include a range of groups—tech sector employees, academics, military reservists, former politicians, doctors, LGBTQ rights activists, religious and secular Israelis, and even some settlers who identify as liberal—who are all engaged in various acts of civil disobedience the likes of which Israel has never seen.

There are a plethora of signs at the protests with all kinds of messaging, but as a whole, the protesters—who are almost exclusively Jewish—have galvanized around one main slogan: democracy.

People are screaming it in the streets, blue wrist bands are being handed out with the word, protesters insist they are trying to save it. They say they have risked their lives for a state that is “Jewish and democratic” and that they will not cooperate with the state if it ceases to be a democracy.

Israel’s Unrest Could End Up Making Its Democracy Stronger

But Israel’s 56 year-long military occupation has systematically disregarded the principles of democracy and equality they say they are fighting for. While protesters—many of them among the most privileged in Israeli society—walk in the streets demanding the “rule of law” and “democracy,” Israeli forces are demolishing Palestinian homes; standing alongside settlers who are terrorizing Palestinians; denying freedom of movement and assembly; holding people in prolonged detention without trial; killing unarmed protesters; carrying out torture; and deporting Palestinian activists. And within Israel, Palestinian citizens face structural discrimination and inequality under an explicit policy that prioritizes Jewish rights.

The occupation is inseparable from Israel. The same government that operates Israel’s liberal democratic mechanisms presides over millions of stateless Palestinians, who are effectively barred from protesting their condition. The same Supreme Court that struck down a law legalizing Jewish settlement on private Palestinian land has given the green light to Israel’s continued transfer of citizens to occupied territory and to the siege on Gaza. That is why the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem defines Israel as an apartheid regime, and why Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Israel of committing the crime of apartheid.

One of the changes this government has already made that exemplifies just how synonymous the occupation and Israel are—but which hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the judicial overhaul—is the authority it has granted to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

Smotrich, who advocates for formal annexation of the West Bank and, in late February, called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank to be “wiped out,” has successfully transferred authorities that have been held by the military for 56 years into his own hands—effectively becoming the governor of the West Bank. Even if protesters manage to stop the anti-democratic legislation, this step in the direction of de jure annexation will remain.

I Was Canceled for Criticizing Israel

Most of those warning that Israel is at risk of becoming a dictatorship—including many of Israel’s top former security brass, among them the recent head of Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, under Netanyahu—are compartmentalizing these issues, convinced that Israel can continue to be a liberal democracy as long as it can stop this legislation. Even many of those who oppose occupation believe it will have to be dealt with separately, and at another time. Yet they are trying to save a system that was never fully democratic to begin with, while the new right-wing government they are fighting sees that undemocratic system as still overly restrictive of its own more radical ambitions.

There are, however, indications that some are starting to draw the connection between Israel’s occupation and the state’s illiberal direction. After hundreds of settlers went on a rampage burning cars and homes and attacking Palestinians in Hawara as soldiers largely stood idly by, protesters in Tel Aviv began chanting at police, “Where were you in Hawara?”

There is also a small but dedicated anti-occupation bloc that carries signs at the protests with messages like: “There is no democracy with occupation” and “Democracy for all from the river to the sea.” At one of the recent protests, a gray-haired woman held up a sign that may sum it up best: “We were silent about occupation, we got a dictatorship.”

Israelis who have bent the rule of law to suit their ideology for decades are now themselves becoming the target of a far right that is using its newly won power to bend it even further.

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