Since January, the Israeli liberal center has been taking to the streets in an impressive show of political force against the extreme-right-wing government’s plan to overhaul the Israeli judiciary system. The government’s plan, announced several days after its inauguration in early January, entails a swath of anti-democratic legislation targeted at weakening the Israeli Supreme Court and all legal checks on the government’s power. Since this announcement, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets weekly in the biggest protest movement in Israel’s history. This protest has had significant success. The legal overhaul, for the time being, is on hold.
The grinding to a halt of the government’s flagship plan occurred late in March. The protests culminated in a nightly expression of anger after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the firing of defense minister Yoav Galant on March 26. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched in the streets and blocked Israel’s main highway, Ayalon, for an entire night. Netanyahu’s reacted to this nightly burst of popular rage — which included, the following morning, a one-day general strike by the county’s largest union — by walking back on the minister’s dismissal and freezing the legal overhaul in favor of an open-ended negotiation between the government and the opposition leadership. Since that freeze, the future of the legal plan is unclear. Some commentators think that the government will try to advance it bit by bit. Others believe that the scale of resistance — on the streets and among Israel’s financial and military elites — left no wiggle room for Netanyahu, who will have to gradually fudge the plan.
But while the overhaul is going nowhere, the weekly anti-government protests persist. Week after week, hundreds of thousands take to the streets. In addition to the opposition protests, recently, a large pro-reform pro-government demonstration also took place, exacerbating the tenuous social and political standoff. While the reform is not on the Knesset’s agenda, the social havoc in Israel persists.
The Limits of the ‘Democracy’ Protest
In this interregnum of uncertain outcomes, it is necessary to spotlight this protest’s ideological and political makeup, which is impressive in its scope but limited in its demands. The protest’s leaders — among them many representatives of the Israeli business, military and cultural elites — frame it as a protest for democracy. They correctly see the government’s plans as an attempt to consolidate power in the hands of an extreme-right-wing parliamentary majority. They claim that the government’s plans to curtail the judiciary’s power would allow the dominantly Orthodox establishment to pass religious legislation and curb the human rights of groups such as women and LGBTQ persons. Israeli centrist liberals fear the government’s intention to radically change the status quo, and they will not have it.
This is all true. Yet, what is missing from the mainstream messages of the protesters — the elephant in the room— is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and peoples and the ethnonational discrimination tantamount to apartheid both in the occupied Palestinian territories and inside Israel, which is an essential feature of the Israeli state. The protesters wish to keep Israel “Jewish and Democratic,” while ignoring the innate contradiction within this definition. And within Zionism.
Israel is a state, an everyday Palestinian citizens’ proverb suggests, which is “democratic for Jews and Jewish for Arabs.” What profound undemocratic realities does the protest movement for “democracy” elegantly ignore?
In the occupied Palestinian territories, millions have been living under military rule for more than 55 years. The aggressive repression of Palestinians in the West Bank has only been worsening in the last years and months, with more than 80 Palestinians dead at the hands of Israeli occupation forces since the beginning of the year. The mass killing is only the tip of the iceberg. Underneath, there is a routine operation of dispossession and oppression. The illegal settlement project, whose leaders currently hold key positions in the Israeli government, is expanding at a rapid pace. Many illegal outposts, small radical “do it yourself” settlements on hilltops in the West Bank, which were illegal not only under international law (as is the entire settlement project) but also under Israeli law, have been legalized by the government. In effect, the current government is streamlining the legalization of the systematic theft of land with the precise aim of making the occupation and its inherent apartheid nature — one military law for Palestinians, another Israeli civil law for settlers — a permanent reality.
Palestinians have been facing invigorated settler violence in the past few years and to an even greater extent since this extreme settler government came to power. The event that sparked headlines was the Huwara pogrom on Feb. 26, in which gangs of settlers set fire to houses and cars in the Palestinian town of Huwara, killing one man, injuring hundreds and terrorizing an entire community. This savagery occurred following a Palestinian attack that killed two settlers. The settler pogrom was performed by the settlers, yet Israeli soldiers were on the ground and allowed it. Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich — a radical settler fanatic who also serves as the minister in charge of the “civilian administration,” managing the non-military aspects of the occupation — stated after the pogrom that “Huwara should be wiped off the map,” qualifying his statement by saying that this murderous endeavor should be taken by the government and not by settler vigilantes.
Meanwhile, the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip is still edging toward a humanitarian catastrophe, with Israel controlling everything that goes in and out of the small strip of land. The threat of Israeli air raids is permanent. Every month or so, a violent bombardment exchange threatens to escalate to an all-out war, which could also include the Lebanese front, meaning hundreds of Palestinian casualties and risking the lives of Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Palestinians.
Ignoring the Palestinian Citizens
While in the Israeli political imagination, the Palestinians in the occupied territories are not even counted, the Palestinian citizens of Israel are still a part of the political calculus, especially since the rise to power of the Joint Arab List in 2015. The Joint List brought Palestinian representation in the Knesset to new heights and generated an understanding among Jewish centrists that the only way to beat the right wing is through a pact between Israeli centrists and the Palestinian citizens.
The political force of the Palestinian electorate is key to the Israeli political prospects. This fact is well known in the halls of power. In fact, one of the main objectives of the current legal overhaul is the removal of parties representing the Palestinian minority from the Knesset, cynically and falsely deeming them terrorist supporters. The right-wing ideologues in the government see this as a strategic part of guaranteeing their constant hold on power. By banning the Palestinian representatives under these false accusations and removing the protection they receive from the Supreme Court, Netanyahu’s coalition wishes to cement the right-wing majority in the Jewish Israeli electorate as a permanent parliamentary majority.
By ignoring the government’s stated goal and alienating the Palestinian citizens from the movement, the “democracy” protest is missing the big picture. It appears that the protest’s leaders are effectively turning the wheel back on Palestinian citizens’ achievements by, once again, politically marginalizing them. The calls for democracy ignore the systematic discrimination against about 20% of Israel’s citizens and the embedded racism of the Israeli state apparatus. A recent government resolution to cement “Zionism as a Guiding Principle in the Government’s Activity” — making discriminatory policy official government policy — was wholly ignored by the protest movement. The daily criminal slaughter that plagues Palestinian society within Israel, the most pressing social issue in this community, is also generally ignored by the protesters.
This ignorance towards Palestinian citizens is a calculated move. Since the second week of the protest, it adopted the Israeli flag as its main symbol. This was an effective political move, reclaiming a patriotic sentiment. Still, it was also a clear sign to the Palestinian citizens, who would be the primary victims of the legal overhaul, that they were not welcomed.
The protest mainstream leadership does not propose a joint civic vision for Israel that Jewish and Arab citizens can share. It insists on putting the value of serving in the (occupation) army at the heart of its agenda, excluding the Palestinians, and featuring former generals at every demonstration. This alienation of the Palestinian public could be a short-term public-relations win, stressing the national credence of the demonstrators. Still, it is a long-term failure of political strategy and imagination.
The protests’ blindness to the suffering of Palestinians, both in the occupied Palestinian territories and within Israel, is infuriating. Indeed, the perpetual cycle of bloodshed and discrimination is seen as a necessary reality not only by the right-wing extremists in charge but also by most of Israel’s opposition leaders. Many who take to the streets regularly for democracy are, in fact, asking to protect democracy for Jews only.
The Silver Lining
Yet, a protest that brings hundreds of thousands to the streets weekly is not a homogenous movement. There are growing radical groups, which are becoming more significant by the week, trying to influence the trajectory of the protest. And they have had some success. The “Anti-Occupation Block,” an initiative of activists, civil society organizations, and parties, has been organizing a demonstration within the demonstration in the “democracy” protest. The block, which has a significant presence in the vast weekly Tel Aviv demonstration and many in local protests around the country, is pushing a simple but catchy message to the demonstrating public: There is no democracy with the occupation.
This simple and profound truth is penetrating some minds. Activists from the Anti-Occupation Block report that while in the early stages of the protest, other centrist protesters told them they had no place in the “democracy” protest, now many are actually understanding the connection between the legal reform and the occupation policy. Some Israelis are taking up a more fundamental understanding of democracy, not an ethnocratic one.
This positive development on the ground is not only due to the tireless work of anti-occupation activists. It is also due to a clear understanding of mindful observers of the true creed of the current government, which seeks to annex the West Bank and perpetuate the apartheid regime in Israel-Palestine, and sees the legal overhaul as a step in that direction. The true colors of the radical right-wing government are showing, and many understand that its ultimate goal is deepening the occupation. When the government decisively pulls to the right, an emboldened left might emerge. The anti-occupation block and left-wing parties such as Hadash are working hard to strengthen this tendency.
There is no reason for excessive optimism. The situation in Israel is dire, and the Jewish supremacist agenda is robust among the government’s supporters and its rivals. Still, this protest creates an opening for all who wish to fight against a program of apartheid, discrimination and hate.