Israel’s unrest won’t end anytime soon
An March 27 at 8:30 p.m., a major Tel Aviv intersection normally suffocated on a Monday evening by late rush-hour traffic jams welcomed young Israelis in a frenzied victory dance. Hundreds of thousands of other Israelis had been demonstrating throughout the day; one hoisted a sign comparing 1948 – when Israelis also danced in the streets to celebrate the founding of the state – to 2023. An influential columnist also proclaimed: “This is our second 1948.”
The evening revelers had just learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to suspend the legislation of a series of measures aimed at constraining, even sabotaging, judicial independence in Israel. For three months, Israelis panicked over the impending gutting of the Supreme Court, the country’s most important constraint on state power, and staged an extraordinary civic protest under the banner of democracy. After a wave of reservists in elite military units threatened not to show up for work, Israel’s defense minister (from Netanyahu’s Likud party) called for the legislation to be suspended, and a day later , last Sunday, Netanyahu summarily fired him. Protesters went on a rampage, blocking highways overnight and plunging the country into a stalemate with a general strike. Netanyahu’s concession of a temporary pause has been their biggest – and only – achievement so far. Many felt that democracy was reborn.
But at the same time, another huge crowd was discouraged. Israel’s most right-wing, mostly religious Jewish citizens were out in force at a large-scale protest in Jerusalem the same evening. They hoped that the government they had just elected last November would advance their interests, in particular by punishing the courts; for these voters, suspending the legislation was tantamount to electoral theft.
What looked like an impending head-on collision between the two worlds was momentarily suspended. But no one knows which tectonic plate of Israel’s fault line will win and which will collapse.
The worldviews of the two blocs are radically opposed; their communities are so separated that they hardly ever meet in daily life. The protest movement sees the independent judiciary as the best defender of individual rights, equality, civic and even progressive values of citizens. These democracy crusaders are secular or moderately religious; they voted for left, center and center-right parties; many even support peace with the Palestinians in one form or another.
Proponents of the government’s plans believe that Jewish law is the true authority, and for the most devout among them, the only one. In their view, the Court is interfering with God’s plans for Jewish redemption by defending the rights of LGBTQ, women, Arab citizens of Israel; or even worse, when the court issues the rare ruling limiting Israeli settlement or other actions in the occupied West Bank. These voters chose parties committed to the divine mission of expanding Israeli settlements and sovereignty west of the Jordan River, flooding Israeli life with Jewish religious practices and elevating Jews above all other citizens, preferably by the law. This group also argues that the “left” – anyone not on its side – cannot tolerate being out of power, so it raised light corruption charges against Netanyahu (currently on trial). From this perspective, a cabal of left-wing parties, the media and the judiciary seek to oust the real leader from office and betray the true will of the people.
Read more: Israel wanders in the desert, a constitution is its way
Judging by the size of the left and right blocs in Israel, it shouldn’t be hard to guess which side will win. The right is clearly in the lead: more than 60% of Israeli Jews consider themselves right-wing, and the Jewish population makes up nearly 80% of Israel’s adult voting population. Arab (Palestinian) citizens of Israel, about 17% of eligible voters, bring the average down, but overall more than half of adult Israelis are right-wing. As a result, in November voters gave 64 of 120 parliamentary seats to Netanyahu’s Likud and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies, who make up the current coalition.
In contrast, barely 20% of all Israelis identify as leftist, but among Jews far fewer, just 11%. Of the two parties that represent most left-leaning Jewish voters, one, Meretz, fell short of the 3.25% minimum to enter the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) in November and left the Knesset for the first time in 30 years. The remaining dovish Labor party barely made it through, winning the minimum of four seats.
But the map is not so simple. “Centrists” in Israel share most of the grassroots perspectives and political stances of the left, and make up about a quarter of all voters. These Israelis, mostly from the middle and upper classes, have a strong Jewish national identity but an even stronger pragmatic side. Like the left, they seek separation of religion and state, career advancement (preferably in high tech), and would settle for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as the bombs don’t end. explode on Israeli buses. They are not political activists unless it affects them personally.
The center and the left felt caught off guard by the judicial assault. They were stunned to realize how much the country needed a formal written constitution, which Israel lacks, to protect the hard-won gains in equality and some limits on religious coercion over the years. and to establish the relationship between the branches of the Israeli government.
But even the combined center and liberal left bloc accounts for less than half of the voters. Moreover, the right has a natural engine of growth: as a rule, Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews are right-wing, and they are the fastest growing population groups. With demographics, political power, and a prime minister desperate to preserve his power, the forces are aligned for an eventual triumph over the judiciary, and ultimately the collapse of democracy in Israel.
If so, it shouldn’t be such a shock. Historically, the essential pillars of democracy in Israel have been deeply fractured. The country’s constitution-writing ambitions were crumbling even at its founding, amid disagreements between religious or secular sources of law; while the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, resented the constraints on his (or his party’s) power. And no one wanted equality for Arabs.
Today’s events display a disconcerting continuity, even if the government’s goals are more extreme: Netanyahu wants unlimited power, even when he and his cronies are tainted with corruption. The right-wing parties want the formal supremacy of Jews over non-Jews, the annexation of the West Bank and full control of Gaza’s borders. The religious wing of the government is driven by such an extreme messianic cosmology that women have protested by dressing like the female slaves of The Handmaid’s Tale. These parties are unlikely to be reconciled by Netanyahu’s bland call for “dialogue” on judicial reform over the coming months of the Knesset’s spring recess and summer session.
But Israel has not seen the last word. Like an empire in decay, Netanyahu’s right-wing leadership may have finally overstepped its bounds. For many right-wing Israelis, the rule of law and democracy still matter. Among a portion of Israel’s devout Jews, human rights are compatible with their religious observance. Many of these people are disgusted with personal corruption, and Netanyahu’s personal ratings have plummeted to the lowest in recent memory. Israel may not be ready for a constitution, but it could be ripe for a political realignment. If parties on the right join the center and the left in recommitting to democracy, it will mean supporting parties and leaders who seek to build democracy rather than destroy it – and Israel will be on a better way.
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