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Israel's democracy crisis explained

An attack on judicial independence triggers protests, as violence with Palestinians flares.

Israelis at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's controversial judicial reform bill
Israelis at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's controversial judicial reform bill, March 9. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s democracy has always been a messy affair, but never has it been more threatened than it is today. And though threats have been a part of Israel’s reality since its founding in 1948, the danger usually comes from hostile neighbors.

Today, Israel has normalized relations with many of its Arab neighbors. Instead, the danger comes from domestic tensions unlike any other that Israel has experienced.

For months now, the country has been rocked by protests over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to curtail the power of the country’s judicial system.

Some wonder if a democratic Jewish state can survive the current turmoil; many assessments are increasingly pessimistic.

Back in power, while facing legal troubles

An image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looms over a protest in Tel Aviv
An image of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looms over a protest in Tel Aviv, Feb. 25. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2019, Benjamin Netanyahu won an unprecedented fifth term as Israel’s leader, a position to which he had first been elected in 1996. His narrow victory came with the help of a spate of small nationalist and religious parties that reflected the profound shift in Israel’s politics.

Although he is a more mainstream conservative, Netanyahu embraced his new allies on the nationalist fringe — West Bank settlers, religious conservatives — calling them “our natural partners.”

Two years later, Netanyahu was forced to step down because of corruption charges that had hounded him for years.

“The End of the Netanyahu Era,” read a headline in Foreign Affairs.

In fact, there would be at least one more act. Throughout 2022, a fragile anticorruption coalition led by the conservative Naftali Bennett and the liberal Yair Lapid failed to gain traction and collapsed at the end of the year.

From the rubble of that coalition rose an unlikely phoenix: Netanyahu.

He was still facing the same legal troubles that had hounded him (and his wife, Sara) for years, but he was now emboldened by the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history, including small parties that to many Israelis seemed well outside the mainstream.

Ofer Cassif, a leftist member of Israel’s parliament, predicted to Al Jazeera that the new government would turn Israel into a “fully-fledged fascist state.”

Even though the Biden administration had largely stayed out of Middle East politics — it had notably proposed no plan for Palestinian statehood — it, too, eyed Netanyahu’s return warily.

With war raging in Ukraine and China emerging as an economic and geopolitical challenge, the last thing Washington needed was another conflict to manage.

But that was exactly what Netanyahu’s return brought.

The reforms

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin
Netanyahu, right, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, chairs the weekly Cabinet meeting, March 5. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

As his judicial minister, Netanyahy appointed Yariv Levin, a longtime political ally and fellow member of the center-right Likud Party. Just days into the new year, Levin introduced proposals that would essentially allow a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.

Unlike the United States, Israel does not have a two-chamber legislature. Whereas the Senate can block House legislation, or vice versa, that kind of tension does not exist in the unicameral Knesset. And with the Knesset moving to the right, the Supreme Court was seen by many as a last bulwark of democratic values and human rights.

On some occasions, the Supreme Court has protected Palestinians, though some say that record is exaggerated.

“We are already in a very fragile situation when we talk about human rights and our constitutional foundations because we have almost no checks and balances,” Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, lamented to Reuters.

Outrage against the plan was broad.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut denounced the plan as “an unbridled assault on the judicial system itself, as if it were an enemy that must be attacked and subdued.”

Some religious leaders agreed. “It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply,” the Conservative movement’s rabbinical group said.

But the reforms were supported by far-right groups that have long seen the court as blocking their push to expand settlements into the West Bank, where a future Palestinian state would have to be based.

Israeli nationalists remain bitter about the Supreme Court’s near unanimous decision to endorse the 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip, the other component of a proposed Palestinian nation. The decision forced thousands of Jewish settlers to leave. In a region where some disputes are rooted in centuries or even millennia of history, the 2005 decision has remained a point of bitterness and contention.

“The court has been hostile to the settlers for years,” one settler said. Now the settlers are about to gain the upper hand.

The protests

Protesters in Tel Aviv
Protesters in Tel Aviv. (Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A country that prides itself on the Jewish tradition of vigorous debate, many Israelis consider the rancor as a natural part of the democratic process.

But the protests that began in January are of another order. They have engulfed the nation and show no signs of ending, despite harsh crackdowns — police have attacked protesters with stun grenades and water cannons — by Netanyahu’s extremist security chief Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most controversial member of his thoroughly controversial cabinet.

Progressives in Tel Aviv have taken to the streets, as have members of the military who have long been frustrated at having to defend settlers living illegally on Palestinian land. And many of the ultra-Orthodox don’t serve in the military, an institution whose centrality to Israeli politics and culture is unrivaled in the West.

Netanyahu has denounced the protesters as “anarchists,” but there is a growing sense that with the unrest persisting, he will need to “pump the brakes” on the planned changes, as U.S. Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said last month.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog — a former leader of the liberal Labor Party — struck out against Netanyahu in an unsparing address that seemed to bolster the protesters’ cause.

“If you choose the path you have followed thus far, the chaos will be on you,” Herzog told Netanyahu. “History will judge you.”

Despite reports that revisions to the judicial proposal are in the works, Netanyahu appears determined to push his proposal through.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank

A Palestinian protester against Israeli settlements in the West Bank
A Palestinian protester near the West Bank city of Nablus. (Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

To virtually all of Netanyahu’s predecessors, Israel’s future depended on the ability to make peace with the Palestinians, who now live in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli military occupation. To Palestinians, the realization of Jewish dreams of statehood in 1948 is known in Arabic as the nakba: the catastrophe.

Netanyahu’s focus has long been on containing Iran, an Islamic republic implacably opposed to Israel’s existence and intent on producing nuclear weapons. With the help of his ally, then-President Donald Trump, Netanyahu has established relations with neighboring and nearby states like Bahrain and Morocco that had previously been hostile to Israel (or, at best, unwilling to fully embrace Israel in the open).

Those agreements, known as the Abraham Accords, have isolated the Palestinians. Though still distant, an emerging accord with Saudi Arabia would significantly strengthen Israel’s regional standing — at the Palestinians’ expense.

Since the start of the sixth Netanyahu term, there have been several high-profile attacks — including a shooting in Tel Aviv on Thursday — by Palestinian militants, some of them tied to new groups emerging from a restive West Bank. Those attacks have been answered by military incursions and settler violence, including a disturbing rampage in the Palestinian village of Huwara.

The violence in Huwara elicited a response from Israeli commentator Nadav Ziv, whose family fled the Nazis. “To deal with these racists and autocrats,” he wrote of the forces purportedly unleashed by Netanyahu, “we must learn from our experience with antisemites and show no compromise, tolerance or legitimization of their policies and actions. We must fight and shame them, for as long as it takes.”

Some commentators on Arabic affairs have also been skeptical of the protests, wondering why deepening anti-Palestinian repressions did not elicit an outcry. They worry that even if Netanyahu’s judicial reforms are halted, the extremist elements he has emboldened will retain their influence.

“Reaching any sort of compromise on domestic affairs,” Palestinian political analyst Marwan Bishara recently wrote for Al Jazeera English, “is sure to free the government’s hand to widen its oppression, deepen its occupation and multiply its illegal settlement.”