Even with all eyes on Gaza, the struggle for Israel’s democracy continues


The costs that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the State of Israel have been paying following the government’s first months in office have become more and more significant in recent weeks, and are they are not forgotten even as Israelis focus on coping with a cycle of warfare with Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza.

There are the diplomatic costs, such as the tensions with the United States and the lack of an invitation to the White House for Netanyahu as well as the slowing down of Israel-Arab relations. There are the economic costs, including the weakening of the shekel and the decline in foreign investments in the Israeli high-tech sector. There are the security costs, from the rise in terrorist incidents to the firing of rockets from across Israel’s northern and southern borders. And finally, there are the political costs to Netanyahu, with a series of consecutive polls indicating a collapse in support for his coalition, its policies, and his leadership.

Within this context, April had the potential to be particularly challenging for the Israeli prime minister: An Israeli-Palestinian flareup seemed likely, as Passover and Ramadan were about to overlap; Israel’s security establishment was warning of Hezbollah’s, Iran’s, and Hamas’ intentions to act against Israel, perhaps simultaneously; pro-democracy protests were planned to peak around the Day of National Remembrance and Independence Day; and criticism from the administration in Washington of Netanyahu’s policies and conduct was mounting.

Netanyahu faced this month — during which the Israeli parliament was in recess — by trying to calm things down somewhat, avoiding a security escalation, smoothing things over to a certain extent with the U.S., weakening the protest movement, publicly emphasizing that Israel was not in a moment of crisis, as well as showcasing that he was in charge and practicing responsible leadership.

To address public backlash over the ruling coalition’s aggressive legislative agenda, he declared a time out in the judicial overhaul; announced that the judicial reform would not pass in its original form, including the controversial clause that would give the Knesset the power to override the Basic Laws and decisions by the Supreme Court; postponed discussions on proposed laws that grant the ultra-Orthodox community further exemptions from military service and additional benefits; and acknowledged that his coalition over-reached in its first months in office.

To soften domestic and American criticism, Netanyahu began to convey messages about seeking compromises and consensus, highlighting the negotiations that began taking place under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog; painted a rosy picture of the domestic situation in U.S. media interviews; walked back his previous announcement about firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant; signaled that far-right Likud parliamentarian May Golan will not be appointed consul general in New York after all; practically distanced his son Yair from social media, after the latter repeatedly posted inciteful messages online; and canceled his planned appearance at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in Tel Aviv, to avoid protests against him. In addition, several government ministers — especially those who did not serve in the military — abandoned their plans to deliver speeches at Day of National Remembrance ceremonies, because of demands by bereaved families that the events not be politicized.

To prevent an Israeli-Palestinian flare-up during Ramadan, before reversing course in May regarding Gaza, the Israeli government engaged with the Palestinian Authority at two U.S.-led regional security summits; the Israeli police was ordered not to raid the al-Aqsa Mosque again during the final days of Ramadan, and non-Muslims were banned from visiting the compound at this time; Israel reacted mildly to the initial firing of rockets from Gaza so as to prevent a renewed spiral of violence; and the government indicated it would request to delay the eviction of the Bedouin village Khan al-Ahmar.

The days around Israel’s 75th Independence Day presented three additional challenges:

1. A pair of rival mass demonstrations — a pro-democracy protest in Tel Aviv on the eve of Independence Day and a pro-government one in Jerusalem two days later;

2. A speech that far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir insisted on delivering at the military cemetery in Beer Sheva on the Day of National Remembrance, despite widespread criticism, causing a spat with bereaved families; and

3. The traditional Independence Day ceremony, which the government sought to politically dominate, thus turning a consensual event into a polarizing one, which opposition leader Yair Lapid chose to boycott.

Taken together, Netanyahu’s actions during the month of April indicate not a policy change but rather a different tactical approach to achieve similar goals. Understanding the power of the pro-democracy protest movement and acknowledging the government’s failure at quickly advancing the judicial overhaul, he seemingly turned to a more gradual judicial overhaul process, yet one that is still likely to dramatically erode Israeli democracy. This is precisely the scenario Israelis are repeatedly warned against by colleagues in Poland, who have experienced first-hand a process of step-by-step democratic erosion.

All of this resembles Netanyahu’s previous conduct on the Palestinian front. After dramatically declaring his intention to formally annex Palestinian territories, and after facing domestic and international pushback, Netanyahu decided in 2020 to drop his initial plan. But he replaced it with a process of creeping, de facto, annexation, which would eventually lead to the same goal.

The month of May, with the Knesset having returned from recess, also started with Netanyahu advancing a different agenda — securing passage of the budget (as legally required by the end of the month) and launching strikes against Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza. While negotiations on the judicial overhaul continued at President Isaac Herzog’s residence, without real progress in sight, Netanyahu was diverting public attention elsewhere, closer to his comfort zone.

However, during the current Knesset session, which will last until the end of July, anti-democratic legislation processes are likely to resume, at one pace or another, and polarizing rhetoric against the pro-democracy protests is once more being voiced from the parliament’s podium. The pro-democracy movement is not losing sight of this. In April, it succeeded in maintaining momentum, keeping people on the streets, and showcasing its impact. In the first week of May, it announced a national day of disturbance and protest, under the slogan of promoting equality in Israel. And even amid the warfare with Gaza, the protest movement has managed to continue its activities, while taking necessary security precautions. Those in the international community — including the U.S. — who were vocal in recent months to help safeguard Israel’s democracy, should keep up their efforts as well. After several weeks of relative domestic quiet, the two rival camps in Israel are once again ready to step up their struggle over the country’s identity and basic values

This article is from MEI@75“, from May 14th, 2023.

Mailing ListContact UsSupport Mitvim