News | State / Democracy - Israel Israel between Authoritarianism, “Demokratia”, and Occupation

Netanyahu may have delayed his controversial judicial reform, but protests continue



Gil Shohat,

Demonstrating for Democracy, Tel Aviv, 1 March 2023
Demonstrating for Democracy, Tel Aviv, 1 March 2023 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, Photo: David King, via Flickr

Israel is currently experiencing a historically open-ended situation without an obvious or clear outcome. Since the beginning of Benjamin Netanyahu’s sixth term as prime minister in December, the country’s already raw political discourse has only grown more aggravated. Each week, hundreds of thousands of participants join protests against the government’s policies, in particular the planned “judicial reform” that would seriously weaken the independence of the country’s judiciary.

Gil Shohat directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Israel Office in Tel Aviv.

Translated by Ryan Eyers, Joseph Keady, and Martin Hiatt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

The demonstrations have now been ongoing for 12 weeks and show no sign of abating. They reached a tipping point on the night of 26–27 March, following Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant after he spoke out against the proposed reforms.

Alongside the large-scale protest movement, Histradut, the country’s trade union confederation, called a general strike on 27 March, with the support of employers’ associations, universities, and medical professionals. As a result, Netanyahu was ultimately forced to postpone the adoption of some central elements of the “reform” package. At the same time, however, he also guaranteed his radical right-wing coalition partners an armed “private national militia” operating under the direct leadership of “National Security Minister” Itamar Ben-Gvir (as opposed to the Israeli police force).

Pressure on the current government — which has become increasingly isolated internationally — had grown steadily In the three months leading up to this point. Israel’s currency, the shekel, has been declining in value for weeks, and investors and companies are moving their assets out of the country. As more and more members of the army and intelligence services threaten not to show up for duty, leading figures in the Israeli military and intelligence services warn with increasing urgency of a growing danger to Israel’s national security.

An Attack on the Separation of Powers

The central cause of these developments is the breath-taking speed and radical approach by which the far-right and, in some cases, extreme-right coalition headed by Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, and National Security Minister Itimar Ben-Gvir have sought to push bills through the Knesset’s committees and full assemblies. The coalition’s primary goal is nothing less than a permanent victory over liberal (including right-liberal) forces in Israel and the consolidation of their authoritarian agenda by severely limiting opportunities for social, political, and juridical scrutiny and opposition.

The legislative proposals, which as of now are suspended but by no means revoked, have already passed their first or second readings. They provide for increased governmental influence on the appointment of judges to the country’s supreme court. Most pertinently, the changes would allow a simple majority in the Knesset (61 of 120) to overturn the court’s decisions regarding the compatibility of new laws with what are informally known as Israel’s Basic Laws (since its formation in 1948, Israel has had neither an official constitution nor definitive international borders).

The way these proposed legislative changes are characterized differs depending on one’s political stance: the government’s supporters describe them as “judicial reform”, while their opponents see them as a kind of “juridical coup”. Like similar efforts in Poland, Hungary, Turkey, or the United States under Trump, the Israeli government has utilized conspiracy theories to portray its supreme court as the embodiment of an illegitimate elite (“the deep state”) wielding undue political power by annulling laws. At stake is also the question of whether the court could declare Netanyahu unfit for office on the basis of the serious corruption charges that have been levelled against him. The laws introduced in recent weeks would certainly make this much more difficult.

But the current government is not content with this open attack on the separation of powers alone. Other bills in the works include the aforementioned arming of citizen militias to act in support of police work, increased checks on appointments procedures at universities, and the defunding of public broadcasting. As of 24 March, no fewer than 140 bills had been proposed.

Left-wing figures in Israel require not only stamina and patience but also solidarity from the international Left — something the German Left would do well to take to heart.

By contrast, the urgent domestic policy issues that the government is not addressing include social issues like the ever-increasing rift between rich and poor, the country’s sharp divide between urban centres and rural regions, the horrendously high cost of living, housing scarcity in densely populated places like Tel Aviv, the staffing shortage in schools and childcare centres, out-of-control gun violence and the concomitant increase in the number of murders (particularly of women), and the extreme exploitation of marginalized groups on the labour market (such as Palestinians from Gaza and the West Bank, asylum seekers who lack official residence papers, and guest workers).

The current protest movement, as its breadth and increasing emphasis on the threat to national security indicate, is largely a patriotic and centrist movement. The overwhelming majority of demonstrators see themselves as embodying democratic — and therefore “real” — Israeli patriotism, as the proliferation of Israeli flags at demonstrations shows. Accordingly, as former prime minister and current opposition leader Yair Lapid has noted, the movement sees it as a patriotic duty not to serve under a government that seeks to undermine the country’s democratic character. The movement also sees Netanyahu’s chicanery as simply an attempt to secure his own power. It is thus unsurprising that the protests have continued even after he declared a “pause” to the judicial overhaul.

The Israeli Left’s Dilemma

The massive protests centred on patriotism and filling the gaps in Israel’s democratic institutions present a dilemma for Israel’s starkly depleted Left. The vast majority of demonstrators and speakers at the protests invoke the strength of Israeli democracy, and with their appeals for demokratia appear to be advocating for a retention of the status quo.

This means a continuation of the structural exclusion of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have largely — albeit not entirely — remained absent from these demonstrations. They see themselves as predominantly unrepresented in the movement’s nationally charged slogans and symbols. Representatives of Palestinian civil society and political circles in Israel have criticized the movement for failing to integrate them. There have also been instances of speeches by Palestinian activists in Israel being modified because their content was deemed too radical by event organizers.

Nonetheless, there has been a significant “anti-occupation bloc” — at least at the weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa — consisting of representatives from civil society organizations as well as the parties Hadash and Meretz. This bloc denounces the structural discrimination experienced by Israel’s Palestinian citizens and criticizes the incompatibility of democracy with an almost 56-year illegal occupation of the West Bank.

It would be remiss to overlook the fact that the Netanyahu administration is also aggressively pursuing a further escalation of its settlement policy, despite Netanyahu’s assertions to the contrary on the international stage. Only last week, the Knesset invalidated a 2006 law on the removal of illegal outposts in the northern parts of the West Bank, drawing harsh criticism from the US and the EU in the process. In conjunction with the Israeli army’s now almost daily and often deadly incursions as well as growing violence on the part of Israeli settlers, such as the recent pogrom in Huwara, which the Israeli army largely permitted to occur, this shows that what initially appears to be a “domestic policy” conflict for Israel has also led to grave consequences for Palestinians on both sides of the “green line”.

Netanyahu and the Global Authoritarian Trend

Classifying the Israeli government as part of growing global trend towards authoritarianism can be useful in providing a better analysis of the current unprecedented situation. It makes clear how the Netanyahu administration has acted in ways remarkably similar to right-populist and far-right governments in other countries. There is also the fact that the undercurrent of contemporary political discourse is an expression of the sustained right-wing hegemony in the country (both when Netanyahu has and has not been part of government), which is increasingly reflected in the government’s pursuit of authoritarian political objectives.

The coming weeks will be decisive for Israel.

At the same time, it must be emphasized that simply classifying these political developments as part of a global authoritarian trend is not sufficient on its own as an analytical tool, as Israel also remains an occupying power, with all the consequences that this entails regarding the nature of its democracy.

It is no accident that the far right is currently expanding its definition of who should be considered an enemy of the state. Similar to the way that Palestinians are often labelled “terrorists”, participants in the current anti-government protests are frequently labelled “anarchists”. The term has been used by Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir in particular in an attempt to discredit the protest movement.

The enemy is thus no longer only an external figure but an internal one as well. The growing protests organized by far-right groups, where chants such as “Leftists are traitors” can be heard, are also contributing to the escalation of the situation.

Quo Vadis, Israel?

What might a progressive, left-wing response to this dramatic situation look like? This is currently the subject of intense discussion.

Firstly, it is important to recognize that the massive mobilization of the population is making use of the democratic spaces still available to them in order to protest. This “space of possibility” is currently being utilized to develop inclusive and progressive ideas for the country’s future — ideas that extend beyond the much-feared spread of fascism in Israel, and beyond an unconditional “loyalty to the country’s declaration of independence”.

In a recent article for Haaretz, former Knesset member Dov Khenin described this phenomenon as a “constructive form of resistance”. This also means that it is important to analyze the current government’s policies in their entirety, beyond the (as of now) deferred decision concerning “judicial reform”. Further regressive and authoritarian legislative proposals will continue to be adopted in future and will have the greatest impact on the least-powerful members of Israeli society (as well as on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank).

The coming weeks will be decisive for Israel. We are witnessing the breakdown of (Jewish-)Israeli society, and it is too early to say where these developments will lead. Although the decisive confrontation (between executive and judiciary) has been averted for now, it remains unclear how the protest movement will react to Netanyahu’s slowdown of the “judicial reform”, and whether the far right will also take their outrage onto the streets. Monday evening’s protests, which saw violent attacks on demonstrators protesting against the government as well as on uninvolved Palestinians does not bode well for the coming weeks.

The decisive confrontation between executive and judiciary in Israel has been deferred for the time being. Next week is Passover: whether that results in a reduction or escalation of the protests remains an open question. What is clear, however, is that left-wing figures in Israel require not only stamina and patience but also solidarity from the international Left — something the German Left would do well to take to heart.