The proposed overhaul of the judiciary seeks to implement a number of bills into law, including giving power to Israel’s legislature to override supreme court decisions, stripping the court of its authority to rule on Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as the country’s constitutional laws, and giving politicians the ultimate power to appoint judges to the court.
Cities like Tel Aviv have come to a standstill, with streets overtaken by protesters who have vowed to shut down the country. Police chiefs and former ministers have joined the marches, and tens of thousands of protesters have clashed with security forces outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
On Sunday, March 26, protests came to a head after Netanyahu fired his Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, over the latter’s public comments urging the PM to halt the legislation, warning that it “posed a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
Following Gallant’s dismissal, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest, while Israel’s largest labor union called a nationwide strike, grounding flights in and out of Tel Aviv, as Israeli airports and border crossings came to a screeching halt.
Under immense pressure, and despite promising to push through with the reforms amid weeks of unrest, Netanyahu caved in on Monday, March 27, albeit temporarily. The PM announced that he would be pausing his government’s plans to overhaul the country’s courts until the next Knesset session in late April.
“Out of a sense of national responsibility, out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill,” he said in his announcement.
Under pressure from far-right influences in his coalition, who have called on their supporters to stage counter-protests across Israel in support of the reforms, Netanyahu did not do away with the plans completely but merely pushed back any parliamentary votes on the bill for several weeks.
“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a time out for dialogue,” Netanyahu said on Monday.
In response to the announcement, the nationwide strike was called off, while leaders of the opposition in Israel, as well as some corners of the protest movement, welcomed the move as a step in the right direction, many vowed to continue the weekly protests until the plans were scrapped completely.
US President Joe Biden’s administration, which had expressed its “concern” over the internal unrest, praised Netanyahu’s government for the move.
“We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise. Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
“We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens. Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” she added.
A price to pay
The price for halting the judicial reforms did not come cheap, and according to critics, Palestinians will pay the ultimate price.
In exchange for the delay, Netanyahu promised his far-right coalition partner, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has been a big proponent of the reforms, the creation of a special “national guard” answerable to Ben-Gvir and his ministry.
The idea of a national guard, composed of border police conscripts and forces, reserves, and a “volunteer” force, is not new and had been introduced by the Israeli government under former Prime Minister Naftali Bennet as a measure to “strengthen national security” in June 2021, on the heels of a wave of Palestinians uprisings across the country.
Still, analysts warn that the recent move to grant Ben-Gvir powers over the guard would amount to his own “private militia.” Many believe it will almost certainly be used to primarily target Palestinian communities across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory.
“Itamar Ben-Gvir is an extremist, he’s someone who has consistently called for violence against Palestinians throughout his political career,” Dr. Yara Hawari, senior political analyst at Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka, told Mondoweiss.
“This [militia] is a big gift to Ben-Gvir that will come at a high cost to Palestinians in the West Bank. He will use it to collectively punish Palestinians and win brownie points with his electorate, which seems to revel in violence against Palestinians,” Dr. Hawari continued.
“Again, we are seeing Palestinians being used as pawns in Israel’s political games. It’s not the first and surely won’t be the last time.”
Once regarded as a fringe, extremist figure in Israel, Ben-Gvir has risen in the ranks of Israeli politics and was regarded as a kingmaker in the most recent elections, the survival of Netanyahu’s governing coalition relying on Ben Gvir and his far-right, ultranationalist supporters.
Ben-Gvir has already enjoyed increased powers over Israel’s police and security apparatus as National Security Minister. The newest agreement granting him powers over a national guard has solidified his power and rank in the coalition.
“Ben-Gvir holds quite a strong position in the coalition. Netanyahu can’t lose him. If he loses Ben-Gvir he risks the coalition crumbling completely,” Dr. Hawari said.
Amjad Iraqi, a policy analyst, writer, and editor at the Haifa-based +972 Magazine, told Mondoweiss that while it remains to be seen exactly how Ben-Gvir will use the new militia, the fact that the agreement was made in the first place is alarming enough.
“Even if this militia doesn’t come to fruition, it shows how normalized Ben-Gvir and his policy ideas are. This could easily happen in the future and outlast this current government,” Iraqi said.
Iraqi continued, saying “what we’re seeing now is the government is trying to give politicians more executive armed force,” describing it as a model of “a diffused form of violence” and the deputization of civilians on the ground.
“It’s the institutionalization of what we saw in May 2021 – where we saw these Jewish vigilantes and thugs, in so-called mixed cities like Haifa, partnering with police officers and claiming themselves as defense committees, and then going and attacking Arabs, Arab businesses, communities, homes, etc.”
“This is something that has already been crystallizing in many respects. Even if this national guard doesn’t happen, it’s already a de facto practice that is emerging. The model of the settler-soldier collusion in the West Bank is really being thought of much more clearly inside ‘48,” Iraqi said.
“I think it is early to tell how it will play out, but it is alarming enough as a serious thing, and it shows the real full intentions of what these guys in government are thinking and how Palestinians in ‘48 are going to be caught in the cross hairs.”
A democracy for Jews, not Palestinians
As the conversation continues to develop within the protest movement inside Israel and the media coverage of it, there is one very large elephant in the room: Palestinians.
There has been a noticeable absence of Palestinians from the protest movement: not only in participation but also in the discussions around democracy and the demands of the protesters. That erasure of Palestinians is not by accident, Dr. Hawari says.
“The so-called pro-democracy protests are not about democracy for everyone that resides between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea,” she said.
“It’s actually about preserving Jewish ethnocracy in the settler colonial state of Israel. You’ll notice from the slogans of protest and demands from various protest groups it’s not actually about dismantling this structure, which is inherently undemocratic; it’s about preserving and reconfiguring it to a more liberal framework.”
Dr. Hawari criticized the “disingenuous” nature of the protests, which were sparked in response to the judicial overhaul by Netanyahu and his coalition.
“That very judiciary that these protesters are so worried about and determined to preserve and protect has been the same judiciary that has overseen the oppression of Palestinians in many different ways,” she said.
“It oversees the demolition of Palestinian homes, the incarceration of Palestinian political prisoners, etc. So it’s very clear that these protests are not really about the essence of democracy, it’s about preserving or reconfiguring settler-colonialism.”
Iraqi told Mondoweiss that part of the reason why we don’t see Palestinians featured in the protest movement is because it is a largely conservative, center-right movement. The “opposition” in Israeli politics right now is not a leftist opposition but is made up of center and center-right figures in Israel who are interested in preserving “some illusion of liberal rights” and liberal Zionism.
Some corners of the movement have positioned themselves as more radical, like the “anti-occupation” bloc, which has rallied behind the idea that democracy cannot be achieved under occupation and apartheid. But those numbers are still small relative to the larger movement and have even come under attack by other protesters.
Even those who have taken a stance against the occupation and apartheid, Dr. Hawari said, are still falling short when it comes to the real confrontation that needs to take place: a confrontation against Zionism as an ideology.
“The framing is still very limited to one that acknowledges the 1967 military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and not one that even begins to tackle the ideology of Zionism as a settler colonial ideology, that at its core seeks to erase the Palestinian people from their homeland,” she said.
“The majority of Israeli society doesn’t even see Palestinians, surely not day to day. The Israeli regime has created a system of oppression that conveniently hides Palestinians from sight,” she continued.
“So for most Israelis, Palestinians aren’t even on their political agenda. We’ve seen this time and time again in elections when Palestinians have not been part of any kind of discussion across the political spectrum. These protests are very reflective of Israeli society and where it stands vis a vis Palestinians.”
What next for the protest movement?
Since the announcement on Monday to delay a vote on the judicial reforms, the future of the current protest movement in Israel hangs in the balance.
Will Israelis seek “compromise,” as some opposition leaders have expressed an interest in? Will the movement end if the reforms are put to bed and the status quo is returned? Or will the protests go even further and seek an end to the current government or a restructuring of Israel’s political system as it currently stands?
Iraqi says it’s not entirely clear how things will unfold but that the most recent events did mark a shift – at least for Israelis.
“It’s not black and white. Yes, the brunt of it does come down to things we already know – the protests falling into a Zionist spectrum, etc., but there are some interesting moves that are happening,” he said.
“Since Monday night, not everyone in this opposition movement is on the same page. These protesters, as far as I’m hearing, are adamant about continuing the demonstrations. They are quite insistent and are not really buying the idea of pausing the judicial overhaul. They don’t see this as being over,” he continued, adding that this upcoming Saturday, the first day of the regularly scheduled weekend protests since Monday’s decision, will reveal how things play out.
“A week ago I would’ve told you most Israelis supported returning to the status quo,” Iraqi said, but that since Monday, it has become more clear that the anti-government protesters “understand the core of it is not about the judiciary.”
“They see it as an entry point to a cause, and they understand the larger implications, which is a religious authoritarian regime that is being reflected in other places. This is what they are scared of, largely secular liberal Zionists, they see their identity as being threatened. There are things that matter to them other than the high court.”
But at the end of the day, Iraqi admits, while Israelis see this as an opportunity for change and securing a better future, it is a future that largely does not include Palestinians.
“It could be a conversation that features Palestinian citizens and how they want to play a role, as this is a radicalizing moment for many Israelis, but it will obviously be a conversation that is centered on securing Jewish rights and democracy based on Zionist principles,” he said.
Responding to claims by political pundits that the current protest movement in Israel could somehow bring about change for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and apartheid, Dr. Hawari says that’s highly unlikely.
In order for real change to happen, she says, “there has to be a real reckoning with what Zionism is and how it manifests itself in Palestine. Zionism is a settler colonial ideology and its main goal is to erase Palestine and indigenous Palestinians from their homeland.”
As long as the Palestinian issue is being separated and removed from the conversation on Israeli politics, she said, Palestinians will continue to be marginalized and erased from the picture.
“Until there is a recognition of [Zionism as a settler colonial ideology], and until there is an internal recognition by Israelis that that is what their whole identity is built around, I don’t think we’re going to see any significant change.”