What’s Next for Israel and Its Democracy

5 minute read

For decades, the threats that defined Israel arrived from without, and produced a basic cohesion. On security, Jewish Israelis spoke as one, historically giving the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) approval ratings near 90%.

But the paroxysm convulsing the country in its 75th year is wholly internal. The current crisis rises not from any Arab neighbor—several of which now enjoy cordial relations with the Jewish state—but over how Jewish Israelis choose to live. The question is fraught, and appears to threaten the fabric of the nation.

Like its borders, Israel’s government structure is not fixed. It’s a parliamentary democracy, but without a constitution. The Prime Minister sits in the Knesset, the legislature, and the only check on the majority is the Supreme Court, which at times decides its role for itself.

Now, however, the Knesset has moved to take control of the court. A law narrowly passed on July 24 that bars justices from overruling government actions. The power play, pushed by the most right-wing government in the country’s history, had already sparked 30 weeks of massive street protests at the time of the vote, with no end in sight. These factors will continue to drive events in the months ahead:

Right-wing ascent

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , center, listens to Israel's Minister of Energy Israel Katz, Israel's Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, and Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on July 10.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu , center, listens to Israel's Minister of Energy Israel Katz, Israel's Minister of Justice Yariv Levin, and Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on July 10. Maya Alleruzzo—AP

To win in last November’s elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had to assemble a coalition that included parties so far right they existed on the fringe. (His national security minister, for example, was deemed unfit to serve in the IDF because of his extremism.) Their grudge against the high court dates to 2005, when justices approved the government’s removal of 8,000 settlers from the Gaza Strip. Now their eagerness to expand Jewish control in the West Bank and their antipathy toward Arabs, including the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Palestinian, has found traction in the 73% of young Israeli Jews who identify as being on the right, a share that rose after 2019 violence in “mixed” Israeli cities. With young people the least liberal demographic, time is on conservatives' side.

Internal divisions

Israel has long been led by European, or Ashkenazi, Jews even though most Israelis today are Mizrahi, who trace their origins to the Middle East and other parts of North Africa; they are more likely to be working class and religious, and are historically underrepresented in positions of power. Netanyahu, though himself Ashkenazi, has long channeled Mizrahi resentments. They see the real goal of the protesters, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. argued in a recent op-ed, as“to preserve the power lost at the polls by the Ashkenazi elite.”

Palestinian bystanders 

Though the world may be preoccupied with the contest between two peoples claiming the same land, the puzzle of how to accommodate Palestinians aspirations has not featured in Israeli politics for more than a decade. But with no political outlet for Palestinians and militant settlers empowered on the West Bank, there’s also the question of the impact of Israeli politics among the 3 million Palestinians living there.

Palestinians inspect the ruins of the house belonging to the family of Kamal Jouri, which was demolished by Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Nablus, on June 22. Majdi Mohammed—AP

Read more: What Israel's Controversial Judicial Overhaul Means for Palestinians

Illiberal allies

Critics have claimed that Netanyahu’s intentions for Israeli democracy can be detected in his embrace of Hungary’s Viktor Orban and other elected Europeans with authoritarian leanings. Closer to home, Arab kingdoms that once promoted the Palestinian cause have found common ground with their erstwhile opponent: The Saudis admire Israel’s tech industry—its security products, such as NSO’s Pegasus surveillance tool, have found users among authoritarian regimes—and share with the country an enmity for Iran. Israel’s newer alignments serve as a counterweight to the West and its demands, including to resolve the Palestinian issue.

Washington watches

The U.S. guarantee of Israeli security has many sources, but “the core of that relationship is certainly on democratic values,” the White House press secretary declared after the July 24 vote, which President Biden had repeatedly warned against. His invitation for Netanyahu to visit the U.S. remains in place, however, as does support for Israel on Capitol Hill, and $3.8 billion a year in military aid.

Read More: The American Public's Views on Israel Are Undergoing a Profound Shift. Washington Hasn't Caught Up

More to Come

The crisis is expected to last for months, not least because the high court is set to review the new law in September. And when the Knesset returns from recess a month later, it may take up another reform, giving lawmakers a hand in naming jurists. Meanwhile, dissenters continue the search for leverage. Thousands of IDF reservists, for example, have vowed to stand down in protest, including fighter pilots. Still, Netanyanhu appeared sanguine about any security threat their loss might pose—perhaps understanding that, at this point, a threat from outside the nation is the one thing guaranteed to bring it together.

With reporting by Leslie Dickstein and Simmone Shah

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