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It's become a Saturday night ritual for scores of thousands of Israelis: turning out to protest the extremist policies of the new Benjamin Netanyahu government. In Jerusalem, 100,000 mobilized in recent weeks, and the same numbers in Tel Aviv. Israel's population was 9.3 million in 2021, so this level of mobilization is significant.
Netanyahu continues to take from the playbook used by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other strongmen. He ran for office while under investigation for corruption. Now he's seeking to capture the courts. His Justice Minister Yariv Levin aims to weaken the judiciary by gaining control over the appointment of judges, and seeks to domesticate the Supreme Court in particular. The ultimate goal is to allow lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions, facilitating controversial actions such as a full annexation of the West Bank.
The sense that this new government presents an unprecedented danger to Israeli democracy fuels the demonstrations. And it's why the protesters include people from sectors of society who don't often take to the streets, from lawyers and judges to employees and executives of tech companies to members of Israeli's military and security apparatus, including National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces.
Focused on judicial overreach, the protests pointedly do not address the occupation of the West Bank and the disenfranchisement and repression of Palestinians. According to Dov Waxman, a Professor of Israel Studies at UCLA, the protest leaders decided not to broaden the scope of the protests, fearing that raising those issues would drive potential allies away.
Erica Chenoweth and other scholars of civil resistance have shown that protests have the best chance of changing policies when they gain the support of elites across institutions. So, some may see limiting the scope of grievances as a pragmatic short-term strategy.
Yet it can also be argued that this is a missed opportunity in terms of long-term democratic stability. Israelis may have become used to Netanyahu's authoritarian aggressions towards Palestinians, but, as Waxman says, we can't understand this government's attempt to weaken judicial independence in a vacuum. For Netanyahu and his extremist allies such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who leads the far-right party Jewish Power, domesticating judicial and other institutions is a means to the end of creating a Jewish ethnostate.
Heightened discrimination and persecution of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs could also prove short-sighted, given that deteriorating regional relationships with Arab countries could have economic and diplomatic consequences. The 2020 Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration established tourist, commercial, and defense networks among Israel and Morocco, the UAE, Sudan, and Bahrain that have brought money into the Israeli economy.
These profits and opportunities could lessen or end if Netanyahu’s government creates circumstances and situations that lead to a war or to another round of the Intifada. Even though the UAE and other Arab countries are no friends of the Palestinians, the optics of Arab solidarity may require them to tone down these transactional "friendships" with Israel and jettison the project of "normalization." Israel's defense sales, tourist industry, and commerce would all take a hit.
It will already be a victory if Israelis succeed in halting Netanyahu's takeover of the judiciary, given the difficulties opposition coalitions in Hungary and other countries have had in stopping such processes. Yet the unusual scale and fervor of these current protests open a window of opportunity for broader action to secure democracy in Israel and peace in the region.
Like the Jews in Fascist Italy, who tolerated Benito Mussolini's repression of leftists and Slavs and thought he would never come for them —until he did, in 1938— Israelis may have to reckon with the repressive traditions of their state if they want to mount an effective and lasting resistance to authoritarianism.
Autocrats are the chameleon of the political world. Since the gullibility level of lots of people is so high, they fall for the propaganda espoused by the wannabe dictators. One has to look no farther than what Fox News did and are still doing promoting the Big Lie! I sincerely hope that people pay close attention to your work!
I have read in many places that Israel can be a democracy or it can be a Jewish ethnostate. It appears that it has arrived at the crossroads of the decision. Which will they pick? And if the choice is for an ethnostate that will require apartheid to suppress the Palestinians, for how long can that be sustained? As Ruth mentions, do Arab states band together to either go to war with Israel or in support of a new Intifada? And what do the Americans and the Europeans do? What meaningful steps can they take in the face of an annexation of the West Bank? The only American response that might get Bibi's attention would be a total cutoff of economic and military aid (as if Israel needs either anyway), but that is unlikely. As for the Israelis themselves, do the leaders of tech companies move out of the country. Do the streets fill with young Israelis who want no part of the ultra-orthodox? The consequences of Bibi's actions are hard to predict, but it seems clear that it's going to be ugly.