On July 25, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government successfully passed the first major piece of legislation from its wider project of judicial reform. It struck down the so-called reasonableness provision, which gave the Supreme Court the authority to overrule government decisions based on whether it considers them to be, well, reasonable. Proponents of the change argue that the previous rules gave an unelected body too much power to override decisions by elected politicians.
Detractors respond that given the absence of an Israeli constitution, the Supreme Court plays a key role in the checks and balances needed for the effective functioning of the state. This concern has, indeed, been a central driver of the thirty-two weeks of protests that have rocked Israel since early this year, regularly bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets.
The demonstrations have often celebrated the Supreme Court as a defender of the rule of law — indeed, a bastion of liberal reason in a sea of right-wing reaction. So, it’s worth remembering that the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians and the occupation have in fact continued apace under the watchful eye of the Supreme Court (or Bagatz, in its Hebrew acronym used by protestors). This week, for example, while tens of thousands quite literally professed their “love” for Bagatz, its judges ruled against the removal of the Homesh settler outpost in the West Bank.
That the coalition around Netanyahu managed to push this decision through the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) is no small feat. In March, his coalition government — joining his Likud party with a collection of Israel’s most hard-right parties (and the competition in this country is stiff) — had been on the back foot when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was fired for trying to hit the brakes on the reform. The government seemed on the point of collapsing altogether as its different wings started pulling in opposite directions, and the mobilizations intensified, culminating in a day of road blocks, strikes, and lockouts. Since then, Netanyahu has had to walk back Gallant’s dismissal, the government and the opposition entered a process of official negotiations, and the demonstrations continued without pause — week in, week out. So, how did we get to this point?
Shifting Power Balance
Two important changes in the political situation have taken place in the last four months. On the one hand, Netanyahu reestablished control over his coalition by temporarily halting the legislative process in March, calling on supporters of the coalition to mobilize in support of the reforms, while using the Easter parliamentary break to get his house in order. When the Knesset reconvened, the coalition was prepared to resume its program. Much of the detail of this process is unknown, but one thing is clear: the government collapsing amid one of the largest and most sustained social movements in Israeli history would have pushed the Netanyahu bloc back into the opposition. Its various wings thus have an immediate interest in maintaining their alliance.
The settler far right around Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, ministers of finance and national security, respectively, knows that this coalition is its once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape the Israeli state in its own image, as much as it can. The more liberal wings of Likud, clustered around Gallant, know that the key figures in the protest movement, Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid — themselves longtime enemies of the Palestinians, and economic liberals — would syphon away much of their votes. The ultra-Orthodox parties, historically prepared to enter coalitions with anyone as long as it yields material benefits, such as funding for their Yeshivas and dispensation from military service, are probably the least committed section of the coalition. But they are prepared to stay as long as the price is right. Moreover, some opposition figures such as Lapid are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to such concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, making them unlikely future partners.
While naked self-interest accounts for much of the glue holding the governing coalition together, an important split has emerged within the protest movement. Indeed, while the demonstrations have continued to bring tens — sometimes hundreds — of thousands of protesters out, and the opposition in the army continues to deepen (with now ten thousand reservists claiming that they’ll refuse to serve as long as the reforms are not abandoned), one important social force appears to be retreating from the social movement.
The Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union federation, was central in deepening the crisis that almost toppled the government in March. Back then, it called a general strike, which was supported by an employers’ lockout in tech and retail, shutting down key sectors, including the country’s only airport. However, this time around, the federation held back from similar actions, despite calls by trade union activists. Instead, it presented what it called a compromise plan, eerily close to the government’s own, which was roundly rejected by all parties.
The truth is that the social base of the Histadrut is far from uniformly opposed to the government, and it is unclear whether the federation would be able to pull off another strike, even if its leadership wanted to. For example, the union of airport workers is controlled by Likud — Netanyahu’s own party — and its general secretary, Pinchas Idan, faced attempts to have him excluded from the party in response to his participation in the strike.
Judging by the groups who did come out in July — doctors and sections of the tech industry — the protest movement is concentrated most strongly among white-collar, highly educated, and well-paid sections of Israel’s population. This is also visible in the splits developing in the most sacrosanct of Israeli institutions: the army. The main groups that have refused to serve are pilots and commandos. These represent the old Ashkenazi — i.e. European — elite, which has historically controlled the levers of power in the Israeli state and society.
This remains one of the great weaknesses of the protest movement. Its overwhelming location among Israel’s Ashkenazi social and cultural elites, alongside important sections of Israeli capital such as tech and retail, makes it unable to appeal to important sections of poorer Israelis — often Jews from the Middle East and North Africa (Mizrahim), the former Soviet Union, and Ethiopia. Moreover, what all these different groups have in common is an unwillingness to engage with Palestinian demands for equal rights or ending the occupation, let alone for liberation. In fact, much of what the movement celebrates — the army, the state, the tech sector — has been the backbone of the colonial conquest of, and ongoing rule over, the Palestinian population.
The demonstrators’ main demand is for things to stay the same and for them to remain in charge of the state and its institutions. This is a hard sell for those who have been excluded from most of the spoils of Israel’s colonial process, to say nothing of the Palestinians who have been its victims for about a century. The symbols of the protest — thousands of Israeli flags, the reservists’ “Brothers in Arms” T-shirts, and placards celebrating the country’s high-tech businesses — sum it up. This is an old establishment fighting to save “its state.” As the massive banner hanging from buildings and shopping malls in Tel Aviv summarizes: “Don’t let them destroy our state” (my emphasis). And it is a battle that they appear to be losing.
The shift that is taking place has not come from nowhere. It has its roots in the 1970s, when Likud was formed as an alliance between a number of parties, most importantly the revisionist Herut — the hard right of the Zionist movement that demanded territorial control from the Nile to the Euphrates and entertained close relations with Mussolini’s fascists — and the Liberal Party. At the time, this alliance emerged against the ruling elite of the state: the Israeli Labor Party and its satellite institutions, like the kibbutzim and the Histadrut. The party brought together capitalists who rejected state control, revisionists who rejected the Labor Party’s hegemony, and the nascent religious settler movement, which demanded more, faster, and religiously motivated colonization. This alliance was also able to appeal to the Mizrahi poor in Israel who were excluded and denigrated by the Ashkenazi labor elite.
This alliance established growing dominance over Israel’s political life. It won against the Labor Party in the 1977 election — the first time the latter was ever defeated — and has continued to gain importance ever since. As the economic nature of the Israeli state changed in the 1980s and ’90s and the settler movement expanded, so did Likud’s reach and influence — alongside new independent settler and religious parties. Today, the Labor Party is a shell of its former self, nearly wiped out in the last elections. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in history, taking this record from Labor’s David Ben Gurion — a symbolically important transition. It was Netanyahu’s ability to maintain the historic alliance of the Right that granted him his longevity, and that allowed him to push forward his political projects.
Against an old elite attempting to maintain the status quo, Netanyahu and his allies are fighting to finish the project started in the 1970s, aimed at taking over not only the government but also the state and its institutions. The ability of the protest movement to mobilize at least part of these institutions against the government — sections of the army, the Supreme Court, etc. — shows that the old power has not yet been defeated. But its inability to reestablish control also points to its waning influence.
However, another split appears to be emerging, this time within the Likud-led power bloc. Indeed, if historically the alliance was led by Likud and the sections of private Israeli capital that it represents, today the settler movement appears to be demanding an increasingly greater share of the political pie. No longer satisfied to focus solely on expanding Israel’s settler colonial project on the ground, figures like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich represent a new settler political agenda (replacing the likes of Naftali Bennet and Avigdor Lieberman). They demand to be granted greater control over the levers of the state.
It appears that there are some in Likud who are not prepared to go along with this change, principally among its old liberal wing. Some, like former president Reuven Rivlin, have joined the protests, while others appear to be negotiating alternative parliamentary alliances behind Netanyahu’s back. While these fractures could develop in the months ahead, it seems clear that the recalcitrant voices in Likud do not have a sufficient social base, either in the Knesset or in the party, to topple Netanyahu. The latter’s ill-health might be the best hope for opponents of the ruling coalition.
The strident calls for “reason” to prevail among the ranks of the Zionist movement are as disconnected from reality as they are futile. They continue to depict the current Israeli government as an anomaly, while failing to acknowledge either long-term processes of change or important continuities. Most striking in this regard is the general consensus, across the political spectrum, that Israel should continue to occupy, settle, and rule Palestine, while dispossessing and controlling Palestinians. Not only have the latter’s demands been roundly ignored by the demonstrators, but the extremely small minority carrying Palestinian flags into the protests have been attacked by the reservist group “Brothers in Arms.” Those Palestinians trying to engage with the movement have found themselves censored.
The tech sector, which the demonstrators claim will be undermined if “democracy” disappears in Israel, is itself the fruit of the state’s decades-long military rule over Palestinians. Take Israel’s world-renowned role in computer vision, which has applications in medical, agricultural, and autonomous-vehicle research. It is itself closely linked, through transfers of personnel and technology, to the surveillance of Palestinians by the Terrain Analysis, Accurate Mapping, Visual Collection and Interpretation Agency, better known as Unit 9900. The NGO Who Profits names firms Dell, IBM, Cisco, and Microsoft as key culprits in bolstering “the capacity of an already highly technological and data-oriented Israeli occupation economy and its capacity to dispossess, repress, control and subject Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line to pervasive surveillance.” Far from thriving under freedom and equality, the tech sector has been dependent for its development on subjugation, surveillance, and murder. The same is evidently true for the reservists — i.e. active participants in Israel’s occupation and assaults on Palestinians — who have suddenly discovered themselves to be champions of freedom.
What does it tell us about Israeli society that so many have been prepared to mobilize for so long, using such militant tactics, to defend their judicial system, but have stood idly by (at best) while Palestinians have suffered the full force of Israel’s apartheid rule for over seven decades?
This question is not only of historical importance. Since the demonstrations have started, pogroms have been carried out by settlers in Huwara and Burqa. Nearly six hundred attacks by settlers have been recorded in the West Bank, settlement building has reached a historical high, and 220 Palestinians have been killed this year alone. Yet the movement remains deafeningly silent.
If democracy is worth fighting for, if liberty is to be defended, it can only be for all. Otherwise, the movement is simply focused on saving its own colonial privileges. The only social force capable and willing to fight for a genuine democracy is the Palestinian people, on both sides of the Green Line. Ending apartheid and settler colonialism, uprooting occupation and blockades, bringing an end to discriminatory laws and allowing refugees to return — these are the basic prerequisites to make democracy possible. The Palestinian national movement is the only social force fighting for such a reality, and it needs all our support.
In that struggle, the current crisis within the Zionist camp is generating new opportunities for the international solidarity movement with Palestine. For example, after years of accusing the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement of being responsible for all the evils in the world, leading figures in the Israeli state and economy have suddenly discovered the importance of international boycotts. While failing to make the connection with the colonial oppression meted out against Palestinians, a recent op-ed in the Hill even used the boycott movement targeting apartheid South Africa as an example of a previously successful international pressure campaign.
This moment thus presents an opportunity that pro-Palestinian activists need to exploit. As senior figures in the Zionist movement put the demands for political boycotts directed at Israel on the table, we should echo their calls while also highlighting that their aims are criminally limited. European and North American military and economic aid to Israel should absolutely be brought to an end. But this pressure needs applying not until the judicial overhaul is revoked, but until democracy is a reality for all those living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. That, after all, is the only reasonable position one can defend.