Why Israel's Democratic Reckoning Has Barely Begun
A protester holds placards during a demonstration in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 25, 2023. Credit - Eyal Warshavsky—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
After 13 consecutive weeks of demonstrations against the Israeli government’s plans to weaken the country’s Supreme Court, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced this week that his far-right coalition’s proposed judicial overhaul has been shelved—for now. In an agreement with the Israeli national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist politician convicted for inciting racism in 2007, Netanyahu pledged to pause the reforms until the end of April to allow for dialogue. In exchange, Ben-Gvir will be granted control over a new security force.
Further escalations in the protests may at least momentarily be averted, though there have been some calls for the demonstrations to continue until the overhaul is scrapped outright. Indeed, some protesters have already returned to the streets. Yet whatever happens with the government’s judicial overhaul plans, Israel’s democratic crisis is far from over. If anything, some analysts say, the reckoning has barely begun.
The primary aversion to Netanyahu’s so-called reforms is that they would make it easier for the government of the day to influence and overrule Supreme Court decisions—an overreach that would undermine the independence of Israel’s courts, a basic tenet of any democracy. But on other tenets, such as equality and the rule of law, Israel has already been lacking. Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up about a fifth of the country’s population, have long been subject to systemic discrimination and demonization—a second-class status that was codified with the passage of the 2018 Nation-State Law, which enshrined Jewish supremacy and discrimination as constitutional principles of the state.
This is to say nothing of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories, millions of whom have been living under de facto Israeli military control for decades—a status quo that a number of Israeli and international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem, have called apartheid.
The role of the occupation in Israel’s democratic backsliding hasn’t been completely overlooked by the protesters, a small but persistent segment of which have sought to highlight the incompatibility between liberal democracy and occupation, with some holding signs declaring that “democracy and occupation cannot coexist.” But it hasn’t been the main focus of the demonstrations, either. Rather, the protests have primarily centered around the concern that the democracy Israelis have known and enjoyed is being meddled with beyond repair. More specifically, many protesters are concerned about what the current government—which includes hardline religious and ultranationalist parties—will do with its new, consolidated power. One protester told the Washington Post that they fear that giving these parties unchecked authority could lead to Israel becoming a “theocratic” state.
“The idea that it’s about saving democracy is kind of silly,” says Yousef Munayyer, a nonresident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that efforts to undermine Israel’s judiciary are hardly new. “It’s about saving a certain political order that was challenged by religious nationalists in ways that it hasn’t been before.”
“I don’t want to rule out the possibility that this may actually lead to some openings and some changes in the way Israelis think critically about their system and their treatment of Palestinians,” Munayyer adds. “That being said, when you look at the protests—the grievances, what’s driving people, the leadership—they’re not focused on the rights of Palestinians at all.”
For Israelis to truly defend their democracy, some observers have argued, they must first be willing to recognize its pre-existing flaws, foremost among them the occupation. They must also be willing to extend their fight not just to the rights and freedoms of Israeli Jews, they say, but of Palestinians both within Israel and those living under Israeli military rule. “There is a huge leap that has to be made in order to move from protecting your own rights, defending your own freedoms and way of life, to fighting for liberating others,” says Michael Sfard, an Israeli human rights lawyer. Still, he adds, this protest movement has presented an opening for that leap to start taking shape.
“For a long time, Israeli society had a very distorted understanding of democracy and democratic values and I do believe that the last few months have made a giant correction,” says Sfard. “It will need a lot of work, but I do think there is an opening that has to be used.”
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By delaying the overhaul, Netanyahu appears to have bought his government some time. Israel’s main trade union subsequently called off its general strike. Military reservists, who have played a central role in the demonstrations thus far, announced on Tuesday that they would pause their protests “to give the negotiation process a chance.” But Netanyahu will find it difficult to scrap the judicial overhaul altogether. Defying his extreme-right coalition partners would mean risking the collapse of his government and triggering fresh elections, which recent polling suggests he would lose. It would also stand to make him more vulnerable to his outstanding corruption trial.
“I don’t think his coalition will stay together if they drop this,” says Munayyer. “The prospect of losing is going to make them want to ride it out together for as long as they possibly can.”
Should Netanyahu decide to proceed with the judicial overhaul at a later date, protest leaders say they will return to the streets in full force. Regardless of whether they succeed—either in preventing it or forcing the collapse of the government and triggering fresh elections—Israel’s quest for democracy won’t end with this illiberal, far-right government.