Israel has been convulsed by public protests since January this year. These protests have intensified over the last several weeks over a new law pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that seeks to reform the Judiciary. The government claims that there is a need to restrict judicial overreach, pushed by activist judges.
This issue has deeply divided the country. Israel’s polity has been fractured for decades and has seen only coalition governments since its independence.
The protesting Israelis believe that their democracy is in peril and that governmental control over judicial appointments will constrain the country's Supreme Court to overturn laws passed by the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. They also feel this law is a direct assault on the independence of the judiciary and will dilute Israel’s democracy, undermine the rights of minorities, and engender more corruption.
Impact of Netanyahu Govt’s Judicial Overhaul Move
Widespread agitation and clashes between the people and security forces have brought the country to a standstill. Protests have cut across all sections of society. Histradut, the largest Union of workers called a strike that closed down Ben-Gurion airport, Israel’s major international gateway. Doctors and nurses restricted themselves to attending to emergency cases only.
Netanyahu had to sack his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant who opposed the law. Mounting countrywide protests forced Netanyahu to stay the implementation of the controversial law which was passed by the Knesset, where the coalition extreme right-wing government led by him has a thin majority.
Netanyahu became the PM for an unprecedented sixth time after the last election in November 2022, the fourth in five years, after forging a successful coalition of some extremist, far-right, and ultra-religious political parties, considered 'fringe groups' in Israeli politics. Several controversial politicians were appointed by Netanyahu in his Cabinet, including Bezalel Smotrich as Finance Minister.
Smotrich's radical beliefs include expanding supporter of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, denying the existence of Palestinians, and opposing a Palestine State. He has been accused of inciting hatred against the Arabs who are citizens of Israel. Another right-wing radical, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister for National Security, who has chanted "death to Arabs" in the past and was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organisation.
Ben-Gvir courted controversy by visiting the Dome of Rock and speaking against the status quo that led to public censure by the US government. He has banned the public display of the Palestinian flag and wants to amend gun laws to help Israelis bear firearms. He has pledged to Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank which nibble away at Palestinian land and makes a two-state solution more and more difficult.
Meanwhile in India, protesting against Netanyahu's controversial judicial reform, members from Israeli embassy have participated in a strike by Histradut. Officials in India and world over will remain on it until called off.
Why Defence Personnel Turned Protesters?
The new law has been criticised for handing over power to the government to reverse Israel’s Supreme Court judgments if the government does not concur with it. Protestors are united in believing that this law undermines the country’s democratic ethos, and checks and balances.
The sacking of the Defence Minister, gave a huge fillip to the protests last weekend and even diplomats and workers in Israeli Embassies were stuck at work. What was seen as a grave danger was the decision of Israeli military reservists to join the protests.
The reservists form the backbone of the country’s defence structure in the event of a war. Some even threatened to boycott the periodic training programmes that are mandatory to attend to upgrade their fighting skills.There is conscription in Israel and every adult citizen has to undergo three years of military service, with some exceptions.
A Resurgence of Violence Due to Aggravating Israel-Palestine Issue
The Jewish people celebrate Passover and the Muslims are observing Ramzan and this often leads to clashes between Israelis and Palestinians during such overlapping religious events. Tensions in Israel have risen after Israeli security forces killed and injured several Palestinians during raids in the West Bank which is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Israeli raids were a response to the killing of several Israelis in an attack outside a Synagogue in East Jerusalem.
This unprecedented spike in violence had not happened in several years. Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers led to armed ones going on the rampage and destroying Palestinian houses and cars in the West Bank town of Hawara. After the violence in Hawara, Smotrich called for wiping out the town’s Palestinians. He later backtracked and Netanyahu rescued him saying that his remarks were inappropriate, after a sharp rebuke from the USA.
Voicing concern, a Palestinian advocate in East Jerusalem said that Palestinians expect more violence to be unleashed against them by the Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers and further trimming of their rights under the Netanyahu government whose ideology is anchored in Jewish domination, hegemony, and superiority.
A Sparring Biden-Netanyahu & Deepening of Israel’s Crisis
Israel depends heavily on the USA for support. This alliance has been the bedrock of Israel’s foreign policy.
Though the Biden administration has rapped Israel on the knuckles periodically and supported the two-state solution, the US has done nothing to force Israel to act and basically left it to the two parties to end the conflict and find a negotiated solution.
Some prominent members of the powerful American Jewish community have expressed unease about the new laws while expressing steadfast support for its security and well-being. They have called for debate and compromise if Israel has to retain the support of the Jewish diaspora and help them defend Israel. Some have commented on the right-wing shift in politics across many countries.
The political crisis in Israel has entered uncharted territory. Former PM Yair Lapid has called out the new laws as “madness” and “loss of direction” and warned of the risk to Israel’s national security. Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has also weighed in, asking Netanyahu to pause and reflect. More than two dozen Mayors across the country have declared hunger strikes over the new laws.
Pressure has mounted on Netanyahu and he is caught between a rock and hard place. His own party has ratcheted up the pressure, with some Cabinet Ministers suggesting a halt to the implementation of the new laws. Israel is facing a constitutional crisis wherein the Supreme Court may strike down the new laws to curb its independence, putting it at loggerheads with the government if it refuses to reject the Court’s judgment.
The geopolitical shifts in the region are also posing new challenges for Israel. The China-brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement will not be palatable to Israel as their regional rivalry suited it. Reports of a Russian-brokered Saudi-Syria rapprochement may be more bad news for Israel.
What Rise of the Israeli ‘Arab Spring’ Means for Arabs?
Though Saudi Arabia supported the Abraham Accords which normalised ties between several Arab countries and Israel, it stayed away from joining the Accords. Saudi Arabia wanted to retain the leverage with Israel to get a better deal for the Palestinians.
While political rapprochement with Israel may not be anathema anymore for Arab countries, the reaction among the people or "the Arab Street” created nervousness among the Arab countries all of whom have authoritarian governments. If the Arabs are nervous about another “Arab Spring” they can watch the Israeli version of it that is unfolding and learn lessons.
As for Iran, an implacable enemy of Israel, domestic turmoil will be watched very carefully to seek advantages and add fuel to the fire. Israel has landed itself in a tough spot and will have to wriggle out of the situation if it has to take up the challenge of regional geopolitical shifts that may threaten its national security.
(The author is a former Secretary in MEA, a former Ambassador and has served as a diplomat in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel; He is a founder Director of DeepStrat, a think tank and a Visiting Fellow at ORF, Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)