Why Israel’s democratic reckoning has barely begun

After 13 straight weeks of protests against the Israeli government’s plans to weaken the country’s Supreme Court, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced this week that the judicial overhaul proposed by his far-right coalition was scrapped, for now. In a deal with Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extremist politician convicted of incitement to racism in 2007, Netanyahu pledged to suspend reforms until the end of April to allow for dialogue. In exchange, Ben-Gvir will be granted control of a new security force.

Further escalations in the protests could at least momentarily be avoided, although there have been calls for the protests to continue until the overhaul is scrapped altogether. Indeed, some demonstrators have already returned to the streets. Yet whatever happens to the government’s plans for a judicial overhaul, Israel’s democratic crisis is far from over. If anything, some analysts say, the reckoning has barely begun.

The main aversion to Netanyahu’s so-called reforms is that they would make it easier for the current government to influence and overrule Supreme Court decisions – an excess that would undermine the independence of Israeli courts, a fundamental principle of any democracy. But on other principles, such as equality and the rule of law, Israel has already fallen short. Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up around 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 passing of the Nation-State Act of 2018, which enshrines 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 man, whom Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B’Tselem have called apartheid.

The occupation’s role in Israel’s democratic backsliding was not completely ignored by protesters, a small but persistent segment of whom sought to highlight the incompatibility between liberal democracy and the occupation, with some holding up signs stating that “democracy and occupation cannot coexist”. .” But that was not the main focus of the protests either. Rather, the protests have focused primarily on fear that the democracy that Israelis have known and enjoyed is beyond repair. Specifically, many protesters are worried about what the current government, which includes ultranationalist and ultranationalist religious parties, will do with its new consolidated power. A protester told the Washington Post that they fear that giving these parties unchecked authority will 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, DC and an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, noting that efforts to undermining the Israeli judicial system are not new. “It’s about saving a certain political order that has been challenged by religious nationalists in a way that it has never been before.”

“I don’t want to rule out the possibility that this will lead to openings and changes in how Israelis critically think about their system and their treatment of Palestinians,” Munayyer adds. “That being said, when you look at the protests – the grievances, what motivates people, the leadership – they don’t focus on Palestinian rights at all.”

For Israelis to truly defend their democracy, according to some observers, they must first be prepared to recognize its pre-existing flaws, chief among them the occupation. They must also be willing to extend their fight not only to the rights and freedoms of Israeli Jews, they say, but also of Palestinians inside Israel and those living under Israeli military rule. “There’s a huge leap to go from protecting your own rights, defending your own freedoms and way of life, to fighting for the liberation of others,” says Michael Sfard, an Israeli lawyer human rights. Yet, he adds, this protest movement has presented an opening for this leap to begin to take shape.

“For a long time Israeli society had a very distorted understanding of democracy and democratic values ​​and I believe the last few months have brought a giant correction,” Sfard says. “It will take a lot of work, but I think there is an opening that needs to be used.”

Learn more: Netanyahu made Israel an American adversary

By delaying the overhaul, Netanyahu appears to have bought his government time. Israel’s main trade union thereafter canceled its general strike. Military reservists, who have so far played a central role in the protests, announced on Tuesday that they would suspend their protests “to give the negotiation process a chance”. But Netanyahu will find it difficult to completely abandon the judicial overhaul. To challenge his far-right coalition partners would mean risking the collapse of his government and triggering new elections, which recent survey suggests he would lose. It would also make him more vulnerable to his ongoing corruption trial.

“I don’t think his coalition will stay together if they give up,” Munayyer said. “The prospect of losing is going to make them want to ride together for as long as they can.”

If Netanyahu decides to proceed with the judicial overhaul at a later date, protest leaders say they will return to the streets in force. Whether or not they succeed in either preventing it or forcing the collapse of the government and calling new elections, Israel’s quest for democracy will not end with this far-right illiberal government.

More must-reads from TIME

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.


Not all news on the site expresses the point of view of the site, but we transmit this news automatically and translate it through programmatic technology on the site and not from a human editor.
Back to top button