Chaos in Israel
Harry Craig, Deputy Print Editor, breaks down the tense political conflict that has brought Israel to a standstill.
In recent months, Israel has been gripped by some of the biggest protests in the country’s history. 365,000 people have taken to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggesting that one in four Israelis had participated in protests. Israeli President Isaac Herzog has warned that the country “is on the verge of constitutional and social collapse.”
These protests have not been sparked by the Palestinian issue as some might expect. Instead, they are rooted in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sweeping judicial reforms, that have been condemned as anti-democratic and even fascistic. The proposals would effectively abolish the concept of an independent judiciary, allowing the government to control the appointment of judges and the Knesset (Israeli parliament) to override the Supreme Court.
The proposals would effectively abolish the concept of an independent judiciary.
The plans were initially unveiled in January, and since then protests and strikes have become part of everyday life for Israelis. The situation has escalated in recent weeks after the Knesset passed the law unanimously on 24th July, when opposition MPs walked out in anger and boycotted the vote, shouting “shame” as they left.
An appeal against the bill will be heard in the Supreme Court itself on the grounds that the new law was a “de-facto elimination of the judicial branch”, but not until September, leaving Israel facing a summer of more protests and constitutional chaos.
In a rare break from his largely symbolic role, President Herzog openly criticised Netanyahu’s plans, but his attempts to foster a compromise have failed to bear fruit.
Netanyahu has firmly defended these constitutional changes, describing them in a TV address to the country as “a necessary democratic act” to “return a measure of balance between the branches of government”. Netanyahu introduced the bill not long after returning to power last December, following 18 months in opposition. It was supported by a coalition of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties and politicians, as well as his national security minister and far-right extremist Itamar Ben-Gevir.
The proposals stem from a long-standing belief among the Israeli right that the Supreme Court is biased and too powerful. This has come to a head with a recent raft of policies blocked by the Supreme Court, such as a permanent exemption for ultra-Orthodox men from military service and expansion of Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, as well as the barring of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri from holding a cabinet position.
Aside from the protests on the streets, there has been massive disruption to Israeli working life. In March, the country’s trade unions effectively coordinated a general strike that brought Israel to a standstill and forced Netanyahu to freeze his proposals, and the head of the largest trade union has issued a warning that he may consider similar action in the coming weeks. This follows the announcement on 23 July that the Israel Business Form, a group of the 150 largest companies in the country that constitutes almost all Israeli private sector employees, was to go on strike in protest against the reforms.
Even the military, considered the bastion of Israeli life and typically an ardent supporter of the government, have become implicated; over 10,000 military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty following the passage of the bill through the Knesset.
Figures from across Israeli political and public life have been unanimous in their condemnation, including public intellectual Yuval Noah Harari, opposition leader Yair Lapid, and even far-right former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who called the plan “dangerous”. Indeed, there are very few, if any, voices from outside Netanyahu’s extremist coalition supporting the plans in any way. Similarly, Israel’s main ally, the United States, has publicly criticised the new law, much to the ire of Netanyahu, who attacked the US and others for interfering in Israel’s “internal debates”.
Although the focus has understandably been on the implications for Israeli democracy, there remains concern over the potential impact on Palestinian communities. In July, Israeli forces attacked the Jenin refugee camp, killing at least ten Palestinians and resulting in a revenge terror attack in Tel Aviv. As Israel has lurched to the extreme right politically, persecution of Palestinian communities has escalated accordingly, and this new law threatens to remove the few remaining safeguards against excessive state violence towards Palestinians.
This new law threatens to remove the few remaining safeguards against excessive state violence towards Palestinians.
For Palestinians, talk of liberation and an independent state has mostly given way to a campaign for greater civil liberties within the state of Israel in recent years, as they have conceded the former objective as largely unachievable. However, the Israeli political system has become increasingly extreme and persecutory towards Palestinians. Netanyahu’s Likud party has become more powerful and the Israeli Labor Party, traditionally the second major party in Israeli politics and supporter of the Palestinian peace process, has all but disappeared. This has enabled Netanyahu to pursue radical, right-wing policies, such as this judicial reform.
Despite this, Netanyahu’s own position has looked shaky in recent years. His inability to form a majority coalition in 2019 has led to five elections in four years, and he was forced to enter a power-sharing deal between liberal Yair Lapid and the aforementioned Naftali Bennett in March 2021. However, this deal collapsed in just over a year and forced another election, won by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, in November 2022, enabling him to push through these reforms.
Netanyahu’s government, as part of his lurch to the right, has now become propped up by several far-right, ultranationalist zealots. This includes Bezalel Smotrich, appointed as Netanyahu’s Finance Minister, who has denied the existence of Palestinian people and called for the eradication of Palestinian sentiments, as well as calling himself a “proud homophobe” and describing pride marches as “worse than bestiality”.
Surrounded by these influencing forces it is perhaps unsurprising that Netanyahu continues to pursue his radical judicial reforms in such an uncompromising manner, despite opposition from almost all sectors of Israeli society. Israel has faced many challenges in the 75 years since its founding in 1948, but few have shaken the foundations of its democracy quite like this. Netanyahu may hope to ride his judicial reform out until the end, but others fear it will pave the way to a theocratic dictatorship, or possibly lead to civil war. For now, Israelis will continue to come out on the streets to defend their country’s democracy in the face of an unprecedented threat.