In the past 24 hours, Israel has witnessed massive protests that shut down the country. The ruling Netanyahu government nearly collapsed. And the controversial rehaul of its judicial laws have been put on pause. Here’s a quick guide to what’s up in Israel.
First, a bit of background
The election merry-go-round: Israeli politics have been in a state of chaos for a very long time. The country has held five national elections in four years—none of which resulted in a decisive verdict. The votes were spread among a range of left-right parties—resulting in shaky ruling coalitions that soon fell apart.
The Netanyahu comeback: In the most recent election held in November, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scraped his way back into power. What was notable: he put together a coalition of three fringe parties to do it—resulting in the “most rightwing government” in Israeli history. Here’s a snapshot of Bibi’s bedfellows:
Ben-Gvir, the slate’s charismatic deputy with a large and youthful following, is a former follower of the far-right terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane. He built a legal career defending Jewish extremists, and in the past called for the deportation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of the population. Other members of the list have set up armed militias, called for the reinstatement of the death penalty, and expressed support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The corruption charges: Netanyahu really, really needed to win this election. He is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. And this was his last chance to grab power—and prevent a possible guilty verdict. As one expert notes, “Quite literally, his return to the prime minister’s office is his get-out-of-jail card.”
Why this matters: Even before Bibi took power, his rightwing allies were demanding sweeping changes to Israel’s legal code. The sweeping judicial “reforms'' proposed by the government—and which sparked the uprising—are very much designed to get him off the hook.
The trigger: An extreme judicial ‘makeover’
Netanyahu and his allies have long argued that the Supreme Court is made up of a cabal of left-leaning, elitist judges who interfere in matters far outside their purview: “We go to the polls, vote, and time after time, people we did not elect decide for us.” And sweeping judicial reforms are necessary to restore “a proper balance” between the three branches of the government.
Key point to note:
Israel has no written constitution, only a set of quasi-constitutional basic laws, making the Supreme Court even more powerful. But Israel also has no check on the power of the Knesset other than the Supreme Court.
The radical package of bills put forward by the Netanyahu government propose the following:
One: Change the makeup of the nine-member committee that selects judges for the Supreme Court. The bill will give the government a majority of the votes—and therefore power to select judges it likes. Netanyahu insists the new system is no different from that of the US—where the White House picks Supreme Court nominees. What he conveniently omits: those nominees have to be confirmed in a lengthy and public process by Congress—which is often controlled by the opposition.
Two: The Knesset (parliament) will have the power to override Supreme Court decisions—and to pass laws previously declared illegal by the Court. This change strikes at the heart of modern democracy—which requires an independent judiciary to determine whether a law is constitutional or not. FYI: Netanyahu has often offered national security as justification for such extreme measures: “The court has unjustifiably interfered in security considerations in the war on terrorism. Time and again, it has imposed difficulties on government policy.”
Three: The bill closest to Bibi’s heart makes it nearly impossible to declare a prime minister unfit for office—and it was successfully passed in parliament last week. According to the new law, “Only the prime minister himself or the cabinet, with a two-thirds majority, can declare the leader unfit. The cabinet vote would then need to be ratified by a super majority in the parliament.” Most importantly, the Supreme Court has no say in the matter—and cannot consider “a request to declare the incapacity of the Prime Minister.”
Key point to note: Under the current system, the Supreme Court will have to rule on the legality of these laws—and is most likely to strike them down. All of which may put Israel in the midst of a new and crippling standoff between the executive and the judiciary.
The fallout: The great uprising
The protests: For months, Israelis have taken to the streets to challenge the proposed changes in unprecedented numbers. The country has witnessed the biggest protests in its history. You can see the sheer size of recent demonstrations below:
On Monday, the protests reached a new peak—shutting down stores, restaurants and even the Tel Aviv airport. The country’s largest labour union went on strike. And the stock exchange was poised to close down as well. Business leaders of all stripes came out against the overhaul—including a prominent cybersecurity company that said “it will not move $300 million capital it recently raised to Israel because of the unrest.” Even the country’s president Isaac Herzog publicly spoke out against the overhaul.
The military jumps in: The reservists are the backbone of the country’s defence—and are called up to serve even in peacetime. Thousands of them threatened not to show up for duty—including members of the air force’s elite 69 Squadron—who claimed they were not prepared to serve a “dictatorial regime.” And there are growing worries that the mutiny is spreading to the serving military as well. Why this matters even more in Israel:
[T]o Jewish Israelis, the Israeli military is a glue that holds together competing social groups: Most citizens serve as conscripts in the army, turning it into a cultural melting pot and social leveller. Angst among soldiers is considered an alarming threat to society.
FYI: Even members of the notorious ultra-nationalist intelligence agency Mossad are opposed to Netanyahu’s plan.
Making it worse: All this unrest in the ranks prompted Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to call for a halt on the judicial overhaul—warning that they posed a danger to national security. He was promptly sacked by Netanyahu on Sunday—which escalated the protests even further.
Something to see: Popular outrage on Monday was so widespread that the police chief of Tel Aviv joined the protesters:
Hitting the ‘pause’ button
Yesterday, Netanyahu finally caved—temporarily—to popular demand. He announced “a timeout for dialogue” to avoid “civil war.” In a televised address, Bibi also vowed to reach a “broad consensus” during the upcoming parliamentary session starting April 30. He probably had very little choice since the protests had shut down the country—and paralyzed the economy.
Bibi’s big problem: is that he is trapped between the protesters and his allies.
The far-right leader Ben-Gvir—who is also the minister for national security—said he will accept a delay… for now, saying: “The reform will pass. No one will scare us.” According to media reports, Ben-Gvir had earlier threatened to pull his support if Netanyahu hit ‘pause’. What changed his mind: Bibi’s promise the bill would return after the parliamentary recess and his ministry would get its own National Guard—which critics claim is the equivalent of a private army.
As for the Palestinians: Most of them have watched the chaos unfold from the sidelines: “Many say Israel’s democracy is tarnished by its military rule over their brethren in the West Bank and the discrimination they themselves face.” On Monday— while Israelis were demanding their democratic rights—settlers and soldiers stormed a town in the occupied-West Bank ”firing rifles into the air. Witnesses said settlers torched a vehicle and hurled stones at an ambulance trying to reach the wounded.”
The bottomline: Bibi has kicked the time-bomb down the road—but it will inevitably explode. We leave you with this observation from an Israeli activist:
The Israeli government is embarking on two revolutions at once, according to Shaul. “One is inside Israel: getting rid of any remains of checks and balances, independence of the judiciary, going full-blown illiberal democracy Orbán-style,” he told me, referring to Hungary’s prime minister. “Then there is the second revolution, which is the changes in the Israeli governance in the occupied territories, mainly in the West Bank. That is one word: annexation.”
Reuters and Associated Press have the most on the latest developments. Vox offers the most context for the protests. CNN is best at explaining the judicial overhaul—and the new law that offers immunity to Netanyahu. Al Jazeera has a good analysis of Bibi’s comeback.