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The Unrest in Israel Won’t End Anytime Soon

7 minute read
Scheindlin is a political analyst in Tel Aviv, a columnist at Haaretz, and the author of The Crooked Timber of Democracy in Israel, published in September.  

At eight-thirty on March 27, a major Tel Aviv junction normally choked on a Monday night with late rush hour traffic instead hosted young Israelis in a frenzied victory dance. Hundreds of thousands of other Israelis had been protesting all 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 similarly proclaimed: “This is our second 1948.”

The evening street revelers had just learned that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to pause the legislation of a series of measures to constrain, if not clobber, judicial independence in Israel. For three months, Israelis were panicking at the looming evisceration of the Supreme Court, the country’s most important constraint on state power, and mounted an extraordinary civic protest under the banner of democracy. After a wave of reservists in crack military units threatened not to report for duty, Israel’s defense minister (from Netanyahu’s Likud party) called to halt the legislation, and a day later, last Sunday, Netanyahu summarily fired him. The protestors went wild, blocking highways all night and bringing the country to a hair-raising standstill with a general strike. Netanyahu’s concession of a temporary pause was their greatest—and only—achievement so far. Many felt democracy was being reborn.

But at the very same time, another enormous crowd was dejected. Israel’s most right wing, overwhelmingly religious Jewish citizens were out in force at a large-scale demonstration in Jerusalem that same night. They longed for the government they had just elected last November to advance their interests, which include punishing the courts; to these voters, pausing the legislation was tantamount to electoral theft.

What looked like an imminent head-on collision between the two worlds has been momentarily suspended. But nobody knows which tectonic plate in Israel’s fault line will win, and which will crumble.

The worldviews of the two blocs are radically opposed; their communities so separate they hardly ever meet in daily life. The protest movement views the independent judiciary as the citizens’ best defender of individual rights, equality, civic and even progressive values. These democracy crusaders are secular or mildly religious; they voted for left, center and center-right parties; many even support peace with Palestinians in some form.

Supporters of the government’s plans believe Jewish law is the truest authority, and for the most devout among them, the only one. In their view, the Court interferes with god’s plans for Jewish redemption by upholding the rights of LGBTQ, women, Arab citizens of Israel; or worst of all, when the court issues the rare decision constraining 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 practice, and elevating Jews above all other citizens, preferably by law. This group also holds that the “left”—anyone not on their side—cannot tolerate being out of power, so it conjured up flimsy corruption indictments against Netanyahu (currently standing trial). In this view, a cabal of left-wing parties, the media and the judiciary seek to hound the true leader out of office and betray the true will of the people.

Read More: Israel Is Wandering in the Desert, a Constitution Is Its Path Home

Judging by the size of left and right-wing blocs in Israel, it shouldn’t be hard to guess which side will win out. The right-wing is clearly in the lead: over 60 percent of Israeli Jews consider themselves right-wing, and the Jewish population makes up nearly 80 percent of Israel’s adult voting population. Israel’s Arab (Palestinian) citizens, about 17 percent of eligible voters, bring down the average, but in total over half of adult Israelis are right-wing. Accordingly, in November voters gave 64 out of 120 parliamentary seats to Netanyahu’s Likud and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies, who make up the current coalition.

By contrast, barely 20 percent of all Israelis identify as left-wing, but among Jews much fewer, only 11 percent. Of the two parties that represent most Jewish left-wing voters, one of them, Meretz, failed to reach the 3.25 percent minimum to enter Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) in November and dropped out of the Knesset for the first time in 30 years. The remaining dovish Labor party barely crossed, winning the minimum of four seats.

But the map isn’t that simple. “Centrists” in Israel share most of the left’s basic outlook and political positions, and make up approximately one-quarter of all voters. These mostly middle- and upper-middle class Israelis have a strong national Jewish identity but an even stronger pragmatic side. Like the left, they seek separation of religion and state, professional advancement (preferably in high-tech), and would be satisfied with a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as bombs aren’t exploding on Israeli buses. They aren’t political activists unless it affects them personally.

Both the center and the left felt blindsided by the judicial assault. They were stunned to realize how badly the country needs a formal written constitution, which Israel lacks, to protect hard-won advances for equality and certain limits on religious coercion over the years, and to establish the relationship between Israel’s branches of government.

But even the combined center and left liberal-oriented bloc makes up fewer than half the voters. Moreover, the right-wing has a natural engine of growth: as an iron-clad rule, orthodox or ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews are right wing, and these are the fastest-growing population groups. With demography, political power, and a prime minister desperate to preserve his power, the forces are aligned for eventual triumph over the judiciary, and eventually the collapse of democracy in Israel.

If so, it shouldn’t be such a shock. Historically, the essential pillars of democracy in Israel were deeply cracked. The country’s constitution-writing ambitions were collapsing even at its founding, amidst disagreements between religious or secular sources of the law; while the first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, chafed at constraints on his (or his party’s) power. And no one wanted equality for Arabs.

The events today display discomfiting continuity, even if the government’s aims are more extreme: Netanyahu wants unrestrained power, even when he and his cronies are tainted by corruption. The right-wing parties want formal Jewish supremacy over non-Jews, West Bank annexation and total control over Gaza’s borders. The religious wing of the government is driven by a messianic cosmology so extreme that women have protested by dressing up like the female slaves of the Handmaid’s Tale. These sides are unlikely to be reconciled by Netanyahu’s cloying call for “dialogue” over the judicial reform during the the next few months of the Knesset’s spring recess and summer session.

But Israel has not seen the final word. Like a decaying empire, Netanyahu’s right-wing leadership may have finally overreached. For many right-wing Israelis, the rule of law and democracy still matter. Among a segment of Israel’s devout Jews, human rights are compatible with their religious observance. Many of these people are disgusted by personal corruption, and Netanyahu’s personal ratings have sunk to the lowest point in recent memory. Israel may not be ready for a constitution, but it could be ripe for a political realignment. If parts of the right-wing join with the center and left in recommitting to democracy, that will mean supporting parties and leaders who seek to build democracy rather than destroying it—and Israel will be on a better path.

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