What’s happening in Israel?

The Signal

What’s happening in Israel? Nimrod Goren on the attack against the rule of law in the country and the massive public response.
Yoav Aziz
A divisive political conflict has roiled Israel for weeks now, following a government proposal to give the country’s legislature enormous new powers over the judicial branch. In January, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Cabinet took power, the government put forward a draft law that would make it far more difficult for the Supreme Court to void legislation—and that would allow the ruling coalition to appoint judges, now appointed by a committee of mostly unelected officials. The bill would also enable the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, to overrule any Supreme Court decision by a simple majority vote.

The proposal triggered immediate and fierce opposition. Right away, President Isaac Herzog asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who’d drafted the bill, to reconsider it. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis kicked off protests throughout the country, which have continued for the past eight weeks. On March 1, police turned water cannons on protesters and threw stun grenades at them in Tel Aviv. Even some of the country’s staunchest international allies have spoken out against the proposal, with U.S. President Joe Biden emphasizing the fundamental democratic importance of an independent judiciary and of finding consensus for fundamental political changes.

Netanyahu’s Cabinet says the draft law would restore balance between unelected judges and elected officials, while opponents say the law would destroy judicial independence and undermine Israel’s democratic system. What’s happening to Israel’s political environment?

Nimrod Goren is a senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and the president of Mitvim—the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Goren sees the proposed law as formed by different agendas, a kind of political storm induced from Netanyahu’s personal interests and his coalition partners’ political interests. The government may have wrongly anticipated the extent and intensity of the response, but the coalition Netanyahu now depends on appears adamant about pushing the bill through. Yet vast numbers in the Israeli public appear at least as adamant about resisting the law, through protests and other actions. The passage of the bill, Goren says, would set democracy in the country back in ways that would be difficult to undo; but the public’s reaction, meanwhile, is a remarkable counter that’s pressing democracy forward in ways that could have their own lasting effects.

Eve Valentine: What does the Israeli government want with this law?

Nimrod Goren: What the government wants goes far beyond the law itself. The law is part of a strategy. Similarly to laws passed in Hungary or Poland, it would effectively eliminate the judiciary’s independence. So the implications of the law go not just to the judiciary but to the very pillars of the Israeli democratic system.

Israel’s new governing coalition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is the most hard-right government the country has ever had. It has a number of key members who were broadly seen as illegitimate in our political system only a few years ago. Once they were elected, they began to voice intentions for various kinds of legislation that go against the foundations of Israeli democracy. And the legal-reform bill was part of that.

A lot of the motivation behind this bill comes quite evidently from Netanyahu’s personal status, as he faces a major, ongoing corruption trial. So it’s not necessarily legislation that comes directly from his party’s policy priorities—let alone from his party’s traditional interpretations of Israeli national interest. It comes principally from Netanyahu’s interpretation of his own interests. And in that context, some of the country’s more extreme political actors are supporting the bill as a means to advancing their own ideological priorities.

In this sense, the current state of Israeli democracy was taking shape before this new law was drafted, and it was drafted to alter the state of Israeli democracy.

Valentine: How dangerous is it to democracy in Israel, then?

Goren: Very fully. There is some gap in the sense of urgency between most people in Israel and many people abroad. People in Israel are going to the streets in enormous numbers, because they really feel a tremendous threat to the democratic integrity of the state. It’s extremely tangible—and visible—that it’s all happening at a very fast pace. The government may try to advance this legislation even before Passover, which is in about a month. So it’s happening quickly, and it would be very hard to go back from. That’s why there’s such a sense of momentousness about it.

Out in the international community, it may look different. Some say, Maybe it’s exaggerated; it’s a process; it’s still in debate; let’s see what happens; let’s wait and see if it’s for real or not. So there’s a real gap in how this legislation is being perceived in Israel and abroad. For the vast majority of Israelis who support their country’s democratic institutions, for the vast majority of Israelis who understand their country to be essentially democratic in nature, this issue is something that needs immediate attention and an immediate response—from them and from any allies in the international community who are willing to pitch in.

Valentine: What do you think the response within Israel says about the country’s political environment?

Goren: Our society has always been very active politically—something you can see in the consistently high voter turnout in Israeli elections over decades. But increasingly, many in Israel, across different political ideologies, feel they need to do something more—and that something more has been evolving.

It’s interesting to see how this new protest movement came to life. It didn’t begin with the regular weekend youth demonstrations you see today; it didn’t begin through organized institutions. It began with sporadic actions coming from the bottom up—from people within their own local communities, or professional communities, speaking out against statements by ministers or top government officials who are calling for new forms of discrimination, who are expressing support for curtailing women’s rights, who are advancing anti-LGBT policies, and who are supporting this legislative effort to weaken the judiciary.

So people began to protest against the new government in a very unorganized manner. And once that happened, the protests grew in momentum. They led many people to go into the streets regularly. And increasingly, it’s now leading them to go beyond demonstrations, to identify concrete actions they can take and have an impact with. That’s meant high levels of involvement, high degrees of engagement, and more coordination across Israeli society.

Now, it’s important to note, this isn’t true in all parts of Israeli society to the same level. Specifically, you don’t see many from the Arab participation in this movement. Which is not so surprising. In Arab-Israeli society, many feel that their status has never been a good one, so for them, the erosion of democracy isn’t something new. But in the experience of the mainstream Israeli population, it’s definitely a new occurrence—and an unprecedented threat.

More from Nimrod Goren at The Signal:

Traditionally, the country’s business sector has for the most part been very cautious about engaging in political controversies. … Many of these are people who were previously making the case, on the grounds of Zionism, for staying within the Israeli banking system and investment system, even if it wasn’t the most profitable thing to do. Now, you hear them saying not only that they don’t support the government’s new initiative and the threat to Israeli democracy it represents; you hear them saying that the entire picture is fundamentally risky for their business. You see companies starting to pull their money out. And you see signs, already, that the younger generation will start looking for opportunities abroad.”

I think Netanyahu has wanted Israel’s regional normalization to go ahead as planned. That would be his agenda in its own right—plus, he would like to see as much quiet as possible on the international front, in order to maintain as much space as possible to insulate himself legally on the domestic front. … normalization is definitely slowing down. Of course, it’s not happening primarily out of Arab countries’ concern for the fate of Israeli democracy as such; it’s happening because Israel’s democratic decline grants more power and authority to extremist ministers and coalition partners—who’re carrying out provocations against the Palestinians and advancing policies that increase tensions and escalation.”

The election result that put this government into place was basically split: In Parliament, there was a clear majority of seats for Netanyahu’s coalition. But in the popular vote, about 50 percent of Israelis voted against it. And many of those who did vote for Netanyahu didn’t know that this is what they were voting for—as public-opinion polling being conducted now bears out. In this context, Israelis from across the political spectrum, left to right, are coming together and experiencing a shared sense of common purpose. This is something that hasn’t really happened in the history of Israeli politics. We’re usually very divided—secular versus religious, left versus right. But now in Jerusalem on a Saturday night, you will see religious people and secular people, you will see right wing and left wing, all together, waving the Israeli flag. This is something very, very powerful.”

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Categories: Geopolitics

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