Proposals by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government to radically diminish the power and independence of Israel’s judiciary sparked demonstrations across the country starting in January 2023. An estimated 200,000 Israelis took part in protests on Feb. 11 and another 100,000 in front of the Parliament on Feb. 13, the same day a general strike took place to denounce the changes. A statement signed by 18 former Supreme Court justices asserted that Israeli democracy is at stake in the judicial reform being considered by lawmakers, which “severely threatens the essence of our system of government and our way of life in Israel.”
The Conversation asked political scientist and Israel expert Dov Waxman, the director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, for his insights into the current crisis.
What’s your broad view of the situation in Israel?
What’s remarkable about these protests is not only the size of them, but the fact that they’ve been able to maintain this size over many weeks and that they’re occurring across the country.
I don’t think there’s been any comparable protest movement in Israel’s history in terms of the size and the various social and economic groups that make up this protest. High-tech workers are not normally a segment of the population that are very politically engaged, and they’ve been very active in these demonstrations. Jurists have demonstrated, but also Israeli security figures, including a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
These protests are driven by concerns over this judicial overhaul, but I think they speak to a broader anxiety, a fear among many Israelis about the future of democracy in Israel and the future of the country. They fear this will essentially lead to Israel’s shift from being what they perceive to be a liberal democracy to becoming an illiberal democracy that looks more like Hungary, Poland or Turkey than the United States.
You barely see Palestinians in these protests. It must be quite an experience for them, hearing Israel described so passionately as a democracy when they don’t have democratic rights.
There’s been a debate within the protest movement and among its leaders over whether they should address issues beyond the judicial reforms, whether the protests should be linked to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And the focus was very deliberately to exclude these other issues. If they’d have brought in the Palestinian issue, it would have driven away or deterred many Israelis and shrunk the protest movement.
But of course, it is a blind spot. I can certainly understand why many Palestinians would be feeling that all of this sudden anxiety and concern for Israeli democracy ignores the fact that almost 50% of the population that Israel effectively rules over lacks equal rights and lacks the ability to vote in Israeli elections.
I think the fact that most Israelis don’t seem to connect these two issues suggests that they only see democracy as this internal domestic issue without any relevance to the Palestinian question. But the government’s desire to weaken the Supreme Court has to be understood against the context in which significant elements of the government want to formally annex the West Bank, where 2.9 million Palestinians live. The Supreme Court would likely either overrule that decision or say that Palestinians living in the area have to be given equal rights. The reforms Netanyahu’s coalition wants would allow lawmakers to, effectively, overrule such Supreme Court decisions.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog says the state is on the brink of a ‘constitutional and social collapse.’ Is he overstating it?
I initially thought that warnings of impending civil war or civil strife were exaggerated and unnecessarily alarmist. But given how quickly events are moving in Israel, the scale of these demonstrations, the massive public strike that took place Monday and the rhetoric that’s coming from both sides, I think now those warnings are well founded. Israel is really entering a very dangerous period.
At least half of the Israeli public see this as a life-or-death issue for Israeli democracy, an existential issue. When the stakes are so high, the possibility for violence increases, whether it’s among the protesters or counterprotesters.
What could adoption of these proposals mean to Israel’s relationships with other countries?
I don’t think it’s likely to greatly affect Israel’s relations with other states because it’s national interests, not democratic values, that fundamentally underpin these relationships.
I do, however, think it is affecting Israel’s relationship with Jews around the world, and potentially America’s unquestioning support for Israel. If the perception takes hold that Israel is no longer a democracy or not a liberal democracy, that could further weaken support for Israel in Congress and in the Democratic Party. It might even make it harder for them to continue to approve U.S. aid for Israel.
There’s always been a yawning gap between the public perception of Israel outside of the country, especially the view held by many Jewish Americans, and the reality of Israel. The mythic image of Israel was incredibly powerful but never really accurate. Reality has gradually undermined this image. And this judicial overhaul threatens to further undermine the image of Israel as a fellow liberal democracy.
Is there a case to be made for Israeli judicial reform?
Since the 1990s, Israel’s high court has become very involved in Israeli politics, something it did not do in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. It has intervened, overridden and disqualified many government decisions and laws. So the perception, particularly by those on the right, that this is an activist court, that it has been too active, is reasonable.
I don’t think it’s as liberal as its critics present it to be. The court has not intervened very much when it comes to protecting the rights of, say, Palestinians in the West Bank. So this perception among the right that the court has really restrained Israeli governments isn’t actually accurate.
I think many people would accept that there could be an argument for some kind of judicial reform, at least passing a law to clarify the role and powers of the Supreme Court. But what’s being presented in this reform is actually a revolutionary attempt to essentially take away the independence and power of the Supreme Court. This goes well beyond improving the present system.
Almost identical measures have been implemented in other countries by authoritarian, populist leaders – by Orban in Hungary, Duda in Poland and Erdogan in Turkey. You don’t need a wild imagination to see what’s driving this or where this is going – Israel will become an illiberal, or majoritarian, democracy, like Hungary, Poland and Turkey.
I think people have genuinely been taken aback by the speed with which the government’s pushing these huge changes through the Knesset, or Parliament. One interpretation is that they’ve done this so quickly knowing that they will eventually have to make a compromise – basically a shock-and-awe campaign.
But the other way of looking at this speed is that, no, they’re not interested in compromising. That’s why they’ve done this so quickly, and they’re going to push this through. We will likely know soon which one it is. It’s kind of like a game of chicken. I think they will in the end come up with some sort of compromise.
Does that compromise make anyone happy?
No, but that’s the nature of compromise.