A divisive political conflict has roiled Israel for weeks now, following a government proposal to give the country’s legislature enormous new powers over the judicial branch. In January, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Cabinet took power, the government put forward a draft law that would make it far more difficult for the Supreme Court to void legislation—and that would allow the ruling coalition to appoint judges, now appointed by a committee of mostly unelected officials. The bill would also enable the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, to overrule any Supreme Court decision by a simple majority vote.
The proposal triggered immediate and fierce opposition. Right away, President Isaac Herzog asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who’d drafted the bill, to reconsider it. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis kicked off protests throughout the country, which have continued for the past eight weeks. On March 1, police turned water cannons on protesters and threw stun grenades at them in Tel Aviv. Even some of the country’s staunchest international allies have spoken out against the proposal, with U.S. President Joe Biden emphasizing the fundamental democratic importance of an independent judiciary and of finding consensus for fundamental political changes.
Netanyahu’s Cabinet says the draft law would restore balance between unelected judges and elected officials, while opponents say the law would destroy judicial independence and undermine Israel’s democratic system. What's happening to Israel's political environment?
Nimrod Goren is a senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and the president of Mitvim—the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Goren sees the proposed law as formed by different agendas, a kind of political storm induced from Netanyahu’s personal interests and his coalition partners’ political interests. The government may have wrongly anticipated the extent and intensity of the response, but the coalition Netanyahu now depends on appears adamant about pushing the bill through. Yet vast numbers in the Israeli public appear at least as adamant about resisting the law, through protests and other actions. The passage of the bill, Goren says, would set democracy in the country back in ways that would be difficult to undo; but the public’s reaction, meanwhile, is a remarkable counter that’s pressing democracy forward in ways that could have their own lasting effects.
Eve Valentine: What does the Israeli government want with this law?
Nimrod Goren: What the government wants goes far beyond the law itself. The law is part of a strategy. Similarly to laws passed in Hungary or Poland, it would effectively eliminate the judiciary’s independence. So the implications of the law go not just to the judiciary but to the very pillars of the Israeli democratic system.
Israel’s new governing coalition, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, is the most hard-right government the country has ever had. It has a number of key members who were broadly seen as illegitimate in our political system only a few years ago. Once they were elected, they began to voice intentions for various kinds of legislation that go against the foundations of Israeli democracy. And the legal-reform bill was part of that.
A lot of the motivation behind this bill comes quite evidently from Netanyahu’s personal status, as he faces a major, ongoing corruption trial. So it’s not necessarily legislation that comes directly from his party’s policy priorities—let alone from his party’s traditional interpretations of Israeli national interest. It comes principally from Netanyahu’s interpretation of his own interests. And in that context, some of the country’s more extreme political actors are supporting the bill as a means to advancing their own ideological priorities.
In this sense, the current state of Israeli democracy was taking shape before this new law was drafted, and it was drafted to alter the state of Israeli democracy.
Valentine: How dangerous is it to democracy in Israel, then?
Goren: Very fully. There is some gap in the sense of urgency between most people in Israel and many people abroad. People in Israel are going to the streets in enormous numbers, because they really feel a tremendous threat to the democratic integrity of the state. It’s extremely tangible—and visible—that it’s all happening at a very fast pace. The government may try to advance this legislation even before Passover, which is in about a month. So it’s happening quickly, and it would be very hard to go back from. That’s why there’s such a sense of momentousness about it.
Out in the international community, it may look different. Some say, Maybe it’s exaggerated; it’s a process; it’s still in debate; let’s see what happens; let’s wait and see if it’s for real or not. So there’s a real gap in how this legislation is being perceived in Israel and abroad. For the vast majority of Israelis who support their country’s democratic institutions, for the vast majority of Israelis who understand their country to be essentially democratic in nature, this issue is something that needs immediate attention and an immediate response—from them and from any allies in the international community who are willing to pitch in.
Valentine: What do you think the response within Israel says about the country’s political environment?
Goren: Our society has always been very active politically—something you can see in the consistently high voter turnout in Israeli elections over decades. But increasingly, many in Israel, across different political ideologies, feel they need to do something more—and that something more has been evolving.
Our society has always been very active politically—something you can see in the consistently high voter turnout in Israeli elections over decades. But increasingly, many in Israel, across different political ideologies, feel they need to do something more—and that something more has been evolving.
It’s interesting to see how this new protest movement came to life. It didn’t begin with the regular weekend mass demonstrations you see today; it didn’t begin through organized institutions. It began with sporadic actions coming from the bottom up—from people within their own local communities, or professional communities, speaking out against statements by ministers or top government officials who are calling for new forms of discrimination, who are expressing support for curtailing women’s rights, who are advancing anti-LGBT policies, and who are supporting this legislative effort to weaken the judiciary.
So people began to protest against the new government in a very unorganized manner. And once that happened, the protests grew in momentum. They led many people to go into the streets regularly. And increasingly, it’s now leading them to go beyond demonstrations, to identify concrete actions they can take and have an impact with. That’s meant high levels of involvement, high degrees of engagement, and more coordination across Israeli society.
Now, it’s important to note, this isn’t true in all parts of Israeli society to the same level. Specifically, you don’t see many from the Arab population participate in this movement. Which is not so surprising. In Arab-Israeli society, many feel that their status has never been a good one, so for them, the erosion of democracy isn’t something new. But in the experience of the mainstream Israeli population, it’s definitely a new occurrence—and an unprecedented threat.
Valentine: What do reactions to the bill look like in Israel’s business sector?
Goren: There’s a new phenomenon here. Traditionally, the country’s business sector has for the most part been very cautious about engaging in political controversies. But here, very early on, companies were saying, Look, we are not going to support those who’re calling for discrimination laws. And then, when the planned judicial reform was announced, and things started to look shaky for Israeli democracy as a whole, you began to see people, especially from the high-tech sector—which is very influential in Israel, both in practical terms and in symbolic terms—indicating that they’d be pulling their money out of the country because it’s too dangerous here for their economic interests.
Many of these are people who were previously making the case, on the grounds of Zionism, for staying within the Israeli banking system and investment system, even if it wasn’t the most profitable thing to do. Now, you hear them saying not only that they don’t support the government’s new initiative and the threat to Israeli democracy it represents; you hear them saying that the entire picture is fundamentally risky for their business. You see companies starting to pull their money out. And you see signs, already, that the younger generation will start looking for opportunities abroad. So while I don’t think the economic implications will be the first ones Israel will feel, over time, they will become quite significant.
Valentine: Joe Biden expressed a degree of criticism of the legislation, saying that an independent judiciary is essential to the health of democracy in Israel. What could the passage of the bill mean for relations with Washington?
You don’t see many from the Arab population participate in this movement. Which is not so surprising. In Arab-Israeli society, many feel that their status has never been a good one, so for them, the erosion of democracy isn’t something new. But in the experience of the mainstream Israeli population, it’s definitely a new occurrence—and an unprecedented threat.
Goren: Initially, when Netanyahu took office, there were diplomatic visits from Washington to engage with the new government, and there were even conversations about Netanyahu getting an invitation to the White House in March. This is certainly not happening now, and statements from U.S. officials are becoming much clearer and much more condemning.
These statements began with criticisms about the treatment of Palestinians, with the expansion of settlements and a rise in anti-Palestinian violence. Gradually, they started to include criticisms about domestic issues related to the erosion of Israeli democracy—which was previously very unusual, especially at the presidential level. Now there’s a crisis around Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s intention to visit the U.S. after he called for the Israeli government to "wipe out" the Palestinian village of Hawara—and a public spat between him and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, which is unprecedented.
So the Americans are being increasingly clear that Netanyahu’s attack on Israeli democratic institutions isn’t something they want to see. It’s hard to know how these statements will convert into practical steps in the U.S., especially with an election year drawing near. But for people in Israel who want to see pushback against what their government is doing, hearing voices of support for what they’re doing from Washington, from the U.S. administration, from the U.S. Congress, and from the U.S. Jewish community—as well as from U.S. civil society generally—is an important factor.
Valentine: How do you see this situation affecting the country’s ongoing normalization among its neighbors in the region?
Goren: I think Netanyahu has wanted Israel’s regional normalization to go ahead as planned. That would be his agenda in its own right—plus, he would like to see as much quiet as possible on the international front, in order to maintain as much space as possible to insulate himself legally on the domestic front.
His assumption may have been that the international community would be unlikely to engage or intervene meaningfully on a domestic issue like the judicial-reform bill—that you’d be more likely to see an increase in international activism if there were an escalation of violence toward Palestinians, for example, than if there were a law passed in the Knesset about how judges are selected in the Israeli system. That’s the assumption.
For that to happen, from day-one, Netanyahu wanted to project that Israel’s normalization in the region was going ahead as planned. This was partly successful at first, with the United Arab Emirates hosting a regional working group meeting of the Negev Forum in January, as planned.
But quite quickly, you could see things starting to go in another direction, with Netanyahu’s visit to the U.A.E. postponed indefinitely. Then, the Negev Summit of ministerial-level representatives from normalization countries, plus Egypt, plus the U.S., was supposed to convene in March; and that was postponed as well. There were a lot of condemnations from Arab countries after Smotrich’s remarks about Hawara. Even Saudi Arabia, with which Netanyahu declared his intention to move normalization forward, is criticizing the Israeli government more often than before. So normalization is definitely slowing down.
For people in Israel who want to see pushback against what their government is doing, hearing voices of support for what they’re doing from Washington, from the U.S. administration, from the U.S. Congress, and from the U.S. Jewish community—as well as from U.S. civil society generally—is an important factor.
Of course, it’s not happening primarily out of Arab countries’ concern for the fate of Israeli democracy as such; it’s happening because Israel’s democratic decline grants more power and authority to extremist ministers and coalition partners—who’re carrying out provocations against the Palestinians and advancing policies that increase tensions and escalation.
Valentine: How important this moment is for Israel?
Goren: It’s a very important moment because it in a way it changes what Israel is.
Again, we still don’t know what will happen with this bill. Isaac Herzog, Israel’s president—whose role is largely ceremonial, but who can be influential—is leading a conversation to try to find some compromise. Maybe he’ll succeed in that. Currently, it seems it’s not going very well. But he’s very ambitious and confident in his ability. So we don’t know the end game.
But if the process continues, as it seems to be continuing—and the members of this government continue to take a full-speed, all-in, in-your-face kind of approach—they’re really going to change the nature of our society.
And it’s mostly up to the people of Israel to resist this and say we’re not willing to allow it. When we look at what’s happened in Hungary, when we look at what’s happened in Poland, when we look at other countries where this kind of legislation has been passed, many of us still believe that it could be stopped in the Israeli context. Many are trying to do whatever they can to make that happen. So the stakes are high, and it’s still not evident what the solution will be, but the future has yet to be written.
In the meantime, something else is happening: The election result that put this government into place was basically split: In Parliament, there was a clear majority of seats for Netanyahu’s coalition. But in the popular vote, about 50 percent of Israelis voted against it. And many of those who did vote for Netanyahu didn’t know that this is what they were voting for—as public-opinion polling being conducted now bears out. In this context, Israelis from across the political spectrum, left to right, are coming together and experiencing a shared sense of common purpose.
This is something that hasn’t really happened in the history of Israeli politics. We’re usually very divided—secular versus religious, left versus right. But now in Jerusalem on a Saturday night, you will see religious people and secular people, you will see right wing and left wing, all together, waving the Israeli flag. This is something very, very powerful.
Beyond these scenes, you can see remarkable things now happening within the military, especially its reserve units. Day after day, there are petitions from people with important positions in the reserves saying, We’re not going to serve such a country; we’re not going to serve such a government. If the government takes our country to an undemocratic place, we will not be there. And some are already refusing to come in. So if that goes on at scale, then it, plus the pressures from the economy, plus the number of people out in the streets—and the sustainability of their protests, and the inclusiveness of their protests—all become something we’ve never had Israel. That’s something I think the government would find it very difficult to stand against indefinitely. And it’s something whose transformative effects on Israeli society I think would be difficult to predict.