Whether things turn hot, simply simmer or cool down remains to be seen. Regardless, the current government’s plan to overhaul the judiciary has elicited more blowback than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ever anticipated.
With less than two months to go before its 75th anniversary, ancient divides have reemerged as jagged chasms. As with Brexit in the United Kingdom and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States—blood and soil, religion, and ethnicity again rule Israel’s body politic.
For two months, Israelis have taken to the streets and highways to protest the current government’s plans. Many Israelis believe Netanyahu and his allies aim to undermine the role the courts play in checking the prime minister and the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In their view, the right is grasping for unfettered power. Some critics also think it’s a cynical ploy to keep Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, out of prison.
On Thursday, a nationwide mass protest—dubbed a “Day of Resisting Dictatorship”—forced Netanyahu to meet US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. Pandemonium on the highways and the airport caused Netanyahu and Co. to dispense with diplomatic niceties.
Adding to the flames of unrest, members of the air force and military intelligence reserves have threatened to ignore call-ups if the legislation that seemingly triggered this chain of events is enacted into law. Already, Israel’s air force has discharged a reserve colonel/fighter pilot for fomenting protest. None of this is a good look for a country that may find itself as the head of the spear in a hot war against Tehran.
Demonstrators clash with police officers during the “Day of Resistance” protest as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its contentious judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 9, 2023.
Whether a viable compromise emerges over efforts by the government to overhaul its judicial system remains uncertain. For the moment, both sides are publicly dug in. Netanyahu and his coalition partners refuse to hit the brakes. At the same time, the opposition declines to engage in discussion.
On Thursday night, Isaac Herzog, Israel’s ceremonial president, said that democracy and an “independent judiciary” are paramount values. He added that the current version of the overhaul needed to “pass from the world” and acknowledged that the events of Thursday were a “nightmare.” According to Herzog, however, some progress in negotiations has been made behind closed doors.
Already, this game of chicken has exacted a heavy price. The shekel, Israel’s currency, has declined while interest rates have risen. Property values have dropped, and the size of mortgage payments has swelled. The stock market is woozy. Israelis are repositioning their bank deposits abroad. A headline on a Hebrew-language financial website blares, “No Path of Return: The Dream of Expanding Israeli Hi-Tech is Endangered.”
In that same vein, a group of bond rating agencies have warned of possible rating downgrades. As a small trading state, that’s a large and unnecessary headache for Israel. Indeed, in this instance, it is a gaping, self-inflicted wound.
Israelis demonstrate on the day Israel’s lawmakers start voting on a judicial plan that would give politicians more power on selecting judges while limiting Supreme Court powers to strike down legislation, outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem, Feb. 20, 2023.
Unlike the cases of the US and the UK, however, immigration is not a driver of the tumult. Israel is well-known for strictly scrutinizing anyone who enters the country, who may stay, and who becomes a citizen. Rather, in the case of Israel, think of it as looking in the mirror and not being happy with the image that stares back.
Decades-old grudges have now morphed into pitched political battles. Antipathies of the old world are now playing out in what was thought to be a high-tech Hebrew-speaking mecca. Israel’s per capita gross domestic product surpasses much of the West—it is on par with that of England, France, and Canada.
Taken together, this looks awfully like a culture war. The underpinnings of the scrum seem to be about who is already living inside the figurative house, makers and takers, who worships, and how often.
The right claims that it won the election and possesses a legal and popular mandate to enact a series of changes that would shift power to the Knesset at the expense of the courts. To be sure, the right’s claim to want more democracy can easily sound like a mask for illiberal parliamentary majoritarianism. They would never buy into a mechanism for direct voter-initiated referenda. Meanwhile, the left has done little to dispel charges of unvarnished elitism.
Overall, the opposition represents better educated and wealthier Israelis, heavily weighted towards the top fifth of the income ladder. They rightly fear that the government’s effort to curb the role of the judiciary will serve as a smokescreen for gutting civil liberties and permanently enshrining parliamentary dominance of the right. Beyond that, they worry that the overhaul would erode the status of the courts as an adjudicator of commercial disputes.
Arab politician Ahmad Tibi visits Palestinian families after an Israeli settlers’ rampage in Huwara, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, March 5, 2023.
There are also deep cultural divides. For instance, Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, previously referred to himself as “a proud homophobe.” Against the more recent backdrop of a lethal Palestinian terror attack and settler reprisals, Smotrich announced that the Palestinian “village of Huwara should be wiped out.” (He has since walked back those remarks.) As a coda, on Thursday the Biden administration granted Smotrich a diplomatic visa to visit the US Likewise, Orit Struck—a Netanyahu and Smotrich ally—declared that each party would seek to revise anti-discrimination legislation to effectively permit hospitals to discriminate against gays.
As for the political left, it has proven itself incapable of addressing the grievances of the Sephardic community (Jews who came to Israel from Arab lands, as opposed to the Ashkenazi descendants of eastern and central European Jews). Israeli Sephardics play an outsized role in Netanyahu’s political base. They are generally more traditional, religiously observant, and blue-collar compared to their Ashkenazic counterparts.
They also know when they are being condescended to. And yet for decades, the political left has demonstrated a consistent inability to meet them halfway.
In politics and life, respect is a big deal. In the present conflict, they wish for capitulation by the opposition, an impossible outcome. More broadly, they seek greater acceptance of their budgetary and social demands.
“Some official, I don’t know who he is, I never met him, suggested I should stay out of Israel’s business,” Nides clapped back. “I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business.”
On Capitol Hill, Republicans have rushed to Netanyahu’s defense, while Democrats appear divided. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, expressed his view that the skirmish in Israel is an internal matter. GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas attacked the Biden administration for allegedly undermining Netanyahu.
How much self-inflicted punishment Israelis can endure remains to be seen. One thing is certain, its allure and deterrence rest on it retaining its technological and military edge.
A lasting cold civil war helps no one but Israel’s enemies. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Abraham Lincoln intoned in June 1858. Things turned real hot in Lincoln’s country three years later.