foreign interests

This Is Still an Existential Crisis for Israel

An Israeli protester is detained by police during clashes after a demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul on March 27 in Tel Aviv. Photo: Getty Images/Amir Levy

Israel’s ongoing political crisis reached an inflection point on Monday, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he was delaying his government’s plans for a radical overhaul of the Israeli judiciary, which had already been the subject of two months of mass protests.

The event that precipitated this latest development occurred on Sunday, when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant expressed criticism of the judicial overhaul, to which Netanyahu responded by firing him. In turn, 600,000 Israelis turned out in the streets on Sunday and the country’s largest trade-union federation called a general strike that brought the economy to a standstill — shutting down malls, universities, hospitals, and Israel’s largest airport.

Netanyahu said he was tabling the judicial-reform bill until the next legislative session after the Passover holiday “to prevent a civil war.” His far-right minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he was open to delaying the vote but still expects to pass the bill next month. Ben-Gvir had reportedly threatened to quit the fragile right-wing coalition (which would likely lead to the collapse of the government) but agreed to the delay in exchange for Netanyahu promising to establish his long-sought-after “national guard”: a militarized volunteer police force that would answer directly to him.

That Netanyahu would offer this to Ben-Gvir, a radical right-wing militant who kept a photo of American Israeli terrorist Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room until doing so threatened his political ambitions, just goes to show the depths Netanyahu is willing to plumb to maintain his position. After all, for Netanyahu at least, the judicial “reform” bill is largely about keeping himself in power — and out of trouble.

The bill would give the Israeli government control over the appointment of judges and allow the Knesset (Israeli parliament) to overrule the Israeli Supreme Court and limit judicial review of legislation by majority vote. Netanyahu, who has the dubious honor of being the first sitting Israeli prime minister to be indicted, would effectively give himself the ability to handpick the judge who presides over his own corruption trial. The bill is the price of holding on to the extreme right-wing parties who enabled him to form a coalition government after November’s elections.

For those right-wingers, the judicial overhaul is about curbing the power of an independent judiciary to apply checks and balances to majoritarian rule. Supporters of the legislation, not all of them radicals, say that the Israeli judiciary is too independent and the Supreme Court often stands in the way of the will of the people as expressed by their elected representatives. In this sense, one can make a facile comparison to the calls for U.S. Supreme Court reform from Democrats. But in terms of the ideologies at play, it is more analogous to how the American right criticized the Supreme Court over decisions like Roe v. Wade — before it managed to capture the Court and get everything it wanted.

The Israeli right, particularly the religious right, sees the judiciary as a bastion of liberalism and secularism in an increasingly conservative and religious Israel. In disempowering the judiciary, it hopes to make way for more legislative changes that go against the liberal ideals enshrined in Israel’s basic laws — the closest thing the country has to a constitution. In this regard, right-wingers see themselves as the defenders of democracy, championing the will of the people over the unelected judiciary.

Theirs is a self-consciously illiberal project very much in the spirit of the “illiberal democracy” championed by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán — the international icon of the new right. Having finally taken control of the government, the Israeli far right wants to leverage its slim legislative majority to roll back the country’s democratic institutions, erode the separation of synagogue and state, and take unilateral action to annex the West Bank without granting citizenship rights to the Palestinians who live there. The aim is, unironically, to pursue a tyranny of the majority: a Jewish democracy that uses its democratic institutions to become more Jewish, not more democratic.

While Israel has drifted to the right in the past 20 years or so, most Israelis do not support these radical changes — even if they agree with many right-wing positions on questions of law and order or settlement building in the West Bank. The protest movement that has been building up since January is not entirely a product of the left, which in Israel has been marginalized to the point of near irrelevance. Rather, the central fault line in Israeli politics right now is between the center and the far right.

Perhaps surprisingly to Americans who see Israel chiefly through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the old dividing lines between doves and hawks are not a significant factor in this crisis. Netanyahu’s career-long quest to destroy the peace process has succeeded, and the right has more or less won the argument that Israel need not make concessions to the Palestinians for the sake of its security. Or even if it hasn’t won the argument, it has won the electorate, which has been shaped in its favor by decades of demographic trends.

The situation now threatening to break the Israeli government is only indirectly about the peace process, but it cuts directly to the fundamental problem of Zionism. Imagine a triangle: On one side, you have a Jewish state; on the second, a democratic state; and on the third, a state in the entire historical land of Israel (i.e., all of Mandatory Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Ideally, Israel aspires to be the entire triangle, but it can only have two sides. The only way to have all three would be to expel the Palestinians entirely, which of course would be both unconscionable and unfeasible (though some segment of the Israeli right has always contemplated it).

Many of Israel’s ideological battles, for the entirety of its history, have been about which two sides of the triangle to choose. The two-state solution would have enabled a Jewish, democratic Israel by giving up some of the land. The one-state solution favored by many Palestinians and some Israeli leftists would create a democratic state in the whole of Israel and Palestine, but it would no longer have a durable Jewish majority and would risk losing its raison d’être as a Jewish homeland.

Annexing the West Bank without granting citizenship to Palestinians would, of course, create a Jewish state in all of Mandatory Palestine (minus Gaza), but that state could no longer call itself democratic, as it would have a massive population of nonvoting subjects. This, in essence, is the solution the far-right coalition seeks: sacrificing Israel’s democratic character in favor of its Jewishness while grabbing all of the land. Given the genocidal rhetoric of some of its leading members, having this government take full control of the West Bank while its Arab residents remain stateless and devoid of civil rights opens the door to some truly grim possibilities.

This is why much of the opposition to Netanyahu’s far-right power grab comes from the center right — including voices in the highly respected Israeli military establishment. These centrists may not be champing at the bit for Palestinian statehood, but they are afraid of religious-nationalist radicals burning down the country by pursuing a hasty annexation, disenfranchising minorities, creating different sets of rights for Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, and turning Israel into an international pariah state with which nobody wants to do business.

In a way, Israel is acting out something like what many liberals had hoped would happen here in the U.S. during the Donald Trump era: a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans coming together to defend our democratic institutions against the corrupt machinations of a far-right gangster government. Considering how much U.S. influence has shaped the Israeli right, it was no surprise to see Netanyahu emulate Trump by fully embracing his paranoid style, cutting deals with full-throated fascists, and attempting to politicize the judiciary to evade his own legal troubles.

Where Israel goes from here is impossible to predict. Netanyahu hopes that, with a few weeks of delay, the protest movement will lose steam and he can push his judicial reform through with less public outcry. Perhaps he can soften the changes to make them more politically salable without losing the support of the far right. On the other hand, protesters seem well aware of just what is at stake here, and they realize that the country is not safe from such attempts to overthrow its founding principles so long as Netanyahu and his far-right allies remain in power.

In any case, with both sides of this battle seeing themselves as defenders of democracy, Israel likely has more years of political crisis ahead of it — regardless of whether it emerges with its institutions intact.

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This Is Still an Existential Crisis for Israel