Why Israel’s new far-right government has triggered massive protests

A man is seen in silhouette against a banner featuring Netanyahu’s face, with the sunset in the background.
A protester walks past a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at sunset outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on February 20, 2023. | Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Israelis are revolting against Netanyahu. But a judicial overhaul isn’t the country’s only crisis.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli protesters have been demonstrating against the extreme-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since January. The protests have become some of the biggest in Israeli history and are drawing out the country’s most famous faces.

On Thursday, protesters plan to disrupt Netanyahu’s travel to Rome in a sign of defiance of his ultranationalist, illiberal government. They’re calling it a “day of resistance to the dictatorship.” This builds on two months of mass mobilization across Israel that have been squarely focused on the Netanyahu government’s set of judiciary overhauls, which would weaken the independence of the country’s high court and create the conditions for unchecked majoritarian rule.

The backlash to these proposals has reached even staunchly establishment groups in Israel: A group of fighter pilots are on strike, tech workers staged a work stoppage, and former prime ministers have joined the protests.

“This is not just another right-wing government,” says Yehuda Shaul, an Israeli activist and co-director of the think tank Ofek: The Israeli Center for Public Affairs.

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.”

Largely absent from the protests’ calls has been attention toward the already abysmal situation for Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. But Netanyahu’s current government is unprecedented in this regard, too: Israeli settlers who advocate for Jewish supremacist policies now hold powerful ministerial roles and are making moves to annex the occupied West Bank. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently called for the eradication of a Palestinian village. National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir is a longtime inciter of violence against Palestinians.

The anti-government protests also come at a time of intensive violence between Israelis and Palestinians that could spiral to a new dangerous phase with these extremist Israeli ministers in top posts. Israeli authorities have been conducting deadly raids on West Bank cities and villages, including a military raid that killed six Palestinians on Tuesday. It’s part of a crescendo of Israeli clampdown, as grassroots Palestinian groups and individuals turn to violent resistance and terrorism in response to the daily violence of the Israeli occupation.

This moment is a crisis for Israel’s democracy — sparked by these proposals, but built from decades of right-wing policies promulgated by Netanyahu. The crisis is also inseparable from the erosion of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories. Netanyahu and his allies are pursuing a shock doctrine that amounts to crippling the Israeli governance system and a total reordering of the Israeli occupation.

Why Israelis are protesting Netanyahu

Netanyahu was elected to a sixth premiership this November, but this time with the most extreme, nationalistic, and exclusionary government in Israeli history.

From the get-go, the Israeli government has sought to make significant changes to the high court that would hollow out its independence and its power to serve as a check on the Israeli parliament, or the Knesset. The several bills put forward would restrict the court’s ability to overturn laws it sees as unconstitutional and allow a simple majority in the Knesset to reject its decisions. It would also give government lawmakers and appointees effective power over the committee of nine individuals that appoints judges, and rescind key authorities from the attorney general. These and other changes would weaken the independent judiciary’s power in a parliamentary system that otherwise lacks checks.

A crowd of protesters stretch across a street, seen from above.
Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images
An aerial view shows protesters stopping before police barricades during a demonstration against the Israeli government’s controversial justice reform bill in Tel Aviv on March 1, 2023.
Yuval Harari stands at a lectern speaking into a microphone and gesturing with his hands.
Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Professor Yuval Noah Harari speaks during a demonstration. Over 400,000 people protested all over Israel for the ninth consecutive week against a governments plan to overhaul the judiciary.

This is all complicated by the fact that Israel doesn’t have a constitution, but a set of regulations passed as the basic law. The proposal’s backers, like a group of Israeli academics who recently published an open letter in support, say the court has grown too powerful. But, according to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, “66 percent of Israelis think the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down a law if it is incompatible with the Basic Laws.”

The result of the judicial overhaul would be a form of majoritarian rule, where minority groups — especially Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are about 20 percent of the country’s population — would face serious threats. “Minority rights will be protected by the majority’s benevolence. That contradicts a core element of democracy, of course,” writes Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution.

These proposals have sparked the massive protests in Israel — and outrage from unexpected quarters.

Many former Israeli heads of state have warned of fascism taking over the country, and now their voices are growing loud. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, one of the country’s most decorated military leaders, has been joining the demonstrations, along with former prime minister and opposition leader Yair Lapid and former Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni. “In Israel, nobody will be above the law, not even the prime minister,” Livni said in January.

Ram Ben Barak, a member of the Knesset who formerly worked as deputy director of Israel’s Mossad intelligence services, made a comparison to Nazi Germany in a stark indication of how bad Israel’s opposition judges the situation to be. “Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and all you other fellow travelers — check Wikipedia and read the history of how the Nazi party rose to power democratically and immediately became a dictatorship,” Ben Barak tweeted.

Pilots from elite Air Force reservist unit are on strike, and former Air Force chiefs have written a letter against the judicial actions. Israel’s national security leaders worry that Israel will be less able to defend itself in international forums; for example, for its potential war crimes in Gaza, the West Bank, and inside Israel if its judiciary is less credible and not independent.

Investors, bankers, and financial leaders have expressed concern about how it would affect the economy. Israel’s influential tech sector staged a work stoppage in protest. Bestselling international writer Yuval Noah Harari, who is a professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called the government’s moves an “antidemocratic coup.”

But Netanyahu and his partners have condemned the protesters and are standing firm in their conviction. “The extreme and dangerous group that organizes [the protests] just wants to burn down the house and create chaos in the country,” Netanyahu said.

It should be noted that Netanyahu is on trial for alleged corruption — charges that he’s denied but that have plagued his political life in recent years. There’s been speculation that those allegations are why he’s been pursuing a major overhaul to the Israeli judiciary, with the effect of weakening its independence.

But that’s only part of the story.

There are three pillars of his governing coalition — Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, ultranationalist settlers, and the ultra-Orthodox — and they each have something to gain from this massive judicial overhaul. “For the first time, they have a complete alignment of interests with no daylight in between, to destroy the judiciary and institutions, for different reasons,” Shaul told me. “And that’s what makes this moment so dangerous.”

It would be beneficial for Netanyahu’s allies in his party for the courts to be disempowered as he tries to wriggle out of longstanding corruption allegations. For the ultranationalist settlers led by Ben Gvir and Smotrich, such judicial changes would open up the opportunity of annexation of the occupied West Bank and other policies that would benefit settlers. And for the ultra-Orthodox supporters, it would — perhaps through changing the makeup of key judiciary appointments — lessen the Supreme Court’s likelihood of ruling that exemptions to the military draft are unconstitutional, among other issues of church and state important to this constituency.

In short, the judicial reforms might be the most incendiary and attention-grabbing of the coalition’s proposals at this moment, but they’re in keeping with its broader goals.

Israel’s right-wing government is pursuing a shock doctrine

The judiciary is only one component of this government’s attack on the rule of law.

Netanyahu’s government is also proposing radical changes to the way the occupation of the West Bank is administered and other legal shifts inside Israel that will severely affect Palestinians.

There’s a ton to keep track of, and not all of it might be implemented, but taken together it represents a shock-doctrine-style approach to transforming the way Israel operates.

Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images
An aerial view of burned and destroyed vehicles in the town of Huwara after settlers set houses and cars on fire following the death of two Israelis when their vehicle was fired on at a crossroads south of the Palestinian city of Nablus.
A bulldozer destroys a home.
Saeed Qaq/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Israeli diggers demolish a Palestinian family’s home, claiming that it was unlicensed, in East Jerusalem on March 6, 2023.

One of the most significant changes would be the transfer of military authority over the occupied West Bank to the hands of civilian government. That would in effect constitute the de jure annexation of territory. The Biden administration opposes this, but if there is not an direct condemnation from the United States and Europe, and real consequences for Israel, experts fear that Netanyahu’s government will move forward.

The government’s overt policy is of Jewish supremacy over all the land of Israel, broadly construed, and its nonbinding coalition guidelines seek to entrench “annexation without official declaration,” according to a policy paper by top Israeli human rights organizations.

Other changes include advancing legislation to give Ben Gvir, who is minister of national security, the authority to intervene in the priorities of investigations of the police. It could lead to further deprioritization of investigations into settler violence, which already receive relatively scant attention from Israeli authorities.

Then there’s a new law that would revoke the citizenship of Palestinian citizens of Israel and their families should they be convicted of terrorist charges; there’s also the potential reinstatement of the death penalty for those convicted of “terrorist offenses.”

The government has already approved the construction of more than 7,000 settlement units in the West Bank, almost twice the total approved last year. New policies would further legalize settler outposts. (State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the US was “deeply troubled” by these settlement announcements, but has not outlined any consequences.)

This is in addition to actions that human rights organizations view as collective punishment of Palestinians, like an uptick in Palestinian home demolitions. Every night raid, random checkpoint, and home demolition holds out the potential of further radicalization, as the Israeli occupation hits new levels of violence.

What now?

The two revolutions being pursued by the new Israeli government have been enabled by the decay of rule of law inside Israel as a result of the occupation of Palestinian territory that started in 1967.

The parallel legal systems, which Palestinian and Israeli experts call apartheid, have created the conditions whereby it’s easier for a radical right-wing government to chip away at checks and balances. Indeed, researcher Yousef Munayyer notes, “The government’s assault on the judiciary is driven by the same urge as the state’s founders: to protect their power to privilege Jews over Palestinians.”

The slippery slope poses a threat to the very tenets of Israeli democracy. The designation of seven Palestinian NGOs that focus on human rights as “terrorist groups” in 2021 may create conditions for the further crackdown on Israeli civil society. If a Palestinian citizen of Israel’s citizenship can be revoked, as a new law enshrines, it could lead to laws that institute the same for Jewish citizens of Israel.

One of the most frightening outcomes could be what Shaul calls “the nuclear option,” whereby Palestinian political parties could be barred from participating in Israeli elections. The Central Elections Committee, for example, has disqualified parties like Balad from participating in Knesset elections, only to then have the Supreme Court override this. But what if there was no override? Balad would not be able to run, and other Palestinian parties in Israel would likely be prohibited, too, or choose not to participate. “Then you basically have elections where Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot run or boycott,” Shaul told me. “Game over, so to speak.”

Yet only some protesters have apparently made this connection. As journalist Peter Beinart wrote recently in the New York Times, “a movement premised on ethnocracy cannot successfully defend the rule of law.”

Netanyahu’s colleagues are reportedly engaged in secret talks with legal experts toward a compromise on the judicial proposals.

But for now, the protests continue, the violence of the Israeli occupation increases, and the resistance of Palestinians has led CIA Director Bill Burns to warn of a third intifada or uprising. A recent statement put out by Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the United States, Jordan, and Egypt sought to calm tensions, but that very day saw a Palestinian gunman shooting two brothers in the West Bank and a settler rampage against the Palestinian village of Huwara. The diplomatic effort showed how wide the gap is between leadership of these countries and the ever-worsening reality on the ground.

The Biden administration will need to do more than just call for a two-state solution. It will need to do more than offer subtle rebukes while hugging Israel closer with joint statements professing its concern for Israel’s security. It will need to grapple with the two revolutions underway in Israel.

One thing is clear: Focusing on the judicial aspect and not on the radical changes to the occupation of Palestinians is not just a bad strategic choice. It will also weaken security and stability for all.

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