Illustration by Elia Barbieri

Israel’s turning point

The planned judicial reforms of Netanyahu’s government have split the country. This grievous attack on democracy may have exposed the true cost of Israel’s occupation
May 10, 2023

It was, protesters would later say, a night to remember. They were on the streets within an hour of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcing on 26th March that he was sacking his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, for declaring that the government’s plan to neuter Israel’s Supreme Court was undermining national security. Thousands of demonstrators chanted “Dem-o-krat-ia” on Jerusalem’s Azza Street as the police used water cannons to push them back from the prime minister’s home. As 22-year-old student Guy Dor—still glistening with water—put it to me: “Why do you appoint someone as minister of defence if you don’t trust him when he tells you the state is in danger?” 

Gallant, who as head of the Israeli Defence Force’s Southern Command had led the lethal assault on Gaza in 2008–09, was an unlikely martyr to the democratic cause. But Dor was protesting less about one man’s fate than about the “coup”: the plan to dismantle the Supreme Court’s independence. Many in Israel see this as the first and crucial part of a Faustian pact that Netanyahu—who is on trial on corruption charges that he denies—made with extremist allies in his coalition government.

The deal, Netanyahu’s critics allege, was that these allies would protect the prime minister from the charges against him in exchange for the freedom to impose radically reactionary social, legal and political changes. These changes are fiercely opposed by the 49 per cent of Israelis who voted against the coalition parties in the 2022 election, and by a growing share of the 50 per cent who voted for them. “People don’t vote for a government to give them the power to change the rules of the game, but to work within them,” said Dor. “They don’t have the right to change the rules, especially when half the country doesn’t agree with them.”

“They”, in this case, refers to Israel’s most right-wing government in history, which is pushing the country towards what demonstrators’ slogans routinely depict as a “dictatorship”. Can “they” be stopped? And since the cabinet includes two religious Jewish supremacist settlers, and others dedicated to permanent annexation of the West Bank, what does the crisis mean for Palestinians living under a 56-year-old occupation? 

While protests began after the overhaul was announced in early January, the fact a hawkish defence minister’s sacking was the tipping point says much about the wide political spectrum of those taking part. Most participants are secular and live in Israel itself, rather than the West Bank settlements now inhabited by 465,000 people and officially regarded by most democratic governments, including the UK’s, as illegal under international law. But I did meet two women from the settlement of Kfar Adumim denouncing Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir—notoriously pro-settlement ministers you’d expect them to support. “We’re religious but liberal,” explained one, Hadid Nuegeboren. Nearby, Yossi Levy, 62, a one-time activist for Netanyahu’s ostensibly centre-right Likud, was disillusioned with the prime minister’s ever tightening grip on the party. He named two long-eclipsed more moderate politicians: “Dan Meridor and Benny Begin—they were my Likud,” he said.

They used to be the lunatic fringe and now they’re the government

The protests that night were the first to produce a palpable—and dramatic—result. The following day some 100,000 demonstrators converged near the two institutions enmeshed in the crisis, Israel’s parliament—the Knesset—and the Supreme Court. The huge crowd waved an ocean of Israeli flags, reclaimed from ultranationalism as the symbol of patriotism, plus a few multicoloured LGBT and still fewer Palestinian ones, likely carried by anti-occupation Israelis. Veronika Cohen, a music professor, Holocaust survivor and veteran promoter of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, told me she finds it “heartbreaking” that Israel is now led by a government that includes “fascists” such as Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. “They used to be the lunatic fringe and now they’re the government.”

It was clear that Netanyahu had made a colossal mistake. At around 10pm, he had “paused” the first and most contentious bill in the judicial overhaul, which would have given the government direct control over selecting judges. Ben-Gvir, minister of national security and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, who had clamoured for the bill’s immediate passage, appeared to exact a sinister price for backing the decision: the prime minister promised to create a new paramilitary national guard, potentially a private militia. The government said it would return to the overhaul in the summer, but the demonstrators made their point. A fortnight later Netanyahu reinstated Gallant without the minister recanting his opposition to the judicial overhaul.

Gallant’s position had been cemented by a fresh outbreak of violence as Passover coincided with Ramadan. It began with police storming the Al-Aqsa mosque and beating young men who had barricaded it against the threatened arrival of Israeli extremists, and culminated in the murder of three British-Israeli settlers—two sisters and their mother—in a shooting by Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. Overall, 2023 has already seen some of the worst violence in 20 years: between 1st January and 25th April, 16 Israelis were killed by Palestinians, while at least 96 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, mainly Israeli security forces.

In speaking out, Gallant had some backing from the security establishment that he heads. The overhaul’s opponents include top business leaders and economists, former (and probably present) generals, heads of the two intelligence agencies, Shin Bet and Mossad, as well as the police. In an unprecedented move, reservists such as air-force pilots said they would not report for duty while the legislation was going through the Knesset. This raised a crucial question: who would the police and army obey if the judicial overhaul went ahead but the Supreme Court ruled against it—the government or the court?

Those coordinating the essentially leaderless protests through WhatsApp, SMS and social media say that targeting individual ministers was especially effective. One typical example near the home of economy minister Nir Barkat involved around 20 women in full length red gowns and white hoods, their clothing copied from the eponymous handmaids in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. (The “astonished” Canadian writer endorsed the movement on Twitter after seeing a video of several hundred of the 25,000 such protesters marching in a human chain.) Netanyahu’s theocratic coalition allies have given women plenty to worry about, from the call of the ultra-orthodox parties to lift the ban on gender segregation in public places and extend the authority of male-dominated rabbinical courts, to Ben-Gvir’s resistance to a popular proposal to tag abusive husbands because it might threaten the “civil rights of men”.

The music professor Cohen’s reference to “fascists” is hardly wild. Ben-Gvir, a Hebron settler, is the minister responsible for the police—remarkable given his past criminal convictions, including for membership of the Kach, a banned racist organisation. He used to keep a portrait in his home of Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers in Hebron’s Ibrahim Mosque in 1994 in the aftermath of the Oslo accords. 

Smotrich, now finance minister and head of the Religious Zionism party, has also taken charge of the military’s civil administration, giving him enormous power over settlement expansion and the fate of West Bank Palestinians. He has described himself, in a leaked recording, as a “fascist homophobe”, declared that the Palestinian people are an “invention” and said that the Palestinian town of Huwara should be “wiped out” by the state—a remark he then unconvincingly retracted—after a violent settler mob ran riot through the town in retaliation for the killing of two settlers.

Netanyahu is, at least in part, at the mercy of the far-right forces he used to form his coalition. But he also faces uncomfortable truths beyond the most obvious one, which is that having long pitched himself as “Mr Security” he is now accused of endangering the state. And as a champion of free enterprise who had claimed credit for a sound economy, he failed to dissuade credit rating agency Moody’s from downgrading Israel’s score in April from “positive” to “stable”.

The Bank of Israel estimates that the judicial overhaul will lower GDP by up to 2.8 per cent annually—regarded by some experts as an underestimate—and -investment in the Israeli tech sector was almost 70 per cent lower in the first quarter of 2023 than in the same period of 2022. Now a private sector consultant, Moshe Levy is a former senior finance ministry economist who helped to organise a letter from more than 200 ex-officials in the department protesting against the judicial overhaul. He tells me: “Investors want to have confidence in the country they invest in.” But when “judges are appointed by the government” and, as a result, out to please the ruling Likud party, businesspeople can no longer trust the courts. “So people, especially the high tech companies… started taking their money out of the country”, he says.

Further, Netanyahu has undermined what he regards as one of his proudest achievements, the Abraham accords, signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain under Donald Trump’s aegis in 2020. Since the government took office on 29th December, the UAE has persistently criticised Israel’s approach to the Palestinians—and pointedly donated $3m for reconstruction in Huwara. Finally, US president Joe Biden said on 28th March that Israel “cannot continue down this road” (to the judicial overhaul) and denied Netanyahu an invitation to the White House “in the near term”. The “Fuck Biden” flag displayed by pro-government counter-protesters in Tel Aviv cannot disguise the shock to the Israeli system of Biden’s rare rebuke.

 * * *

On a Monday afternoon in April, I went to the High Court—which sits in the same building and with the same judges as the Supreme Court— when it heard a petition asking it to disqualify Ben-Gvir as a minister. The court had done something similar in January, when it struck down Netanyahu’s appointment as deputy prime minister of Aryeh Deri, leader of the Sephardic ultra-orthodox party Shas, who was convicted of tax offences last year. 

Ben-Gvir, a lawyer, conducted his own defence with alarming confidence. Suited, with a white kippa and his necktie slightly loosened around an undone collar button, he insisted he had become “more refined” since his youth. He had “made mistakes”. He no longer believed “Kahane’s Torah in its entirety”. His fluent performance made it hard to recall that in October 2022 he had drawn a handgun during clashes between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the East Jerusalem Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Or that almost his first act as a minister in January was to make a provocative visit to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound; when Ariel Sharon did the same in 2000, it triggered the second intifada.

The case was unlikely to succeed. Despite bravely challenging other Netanyahu decisions, the attorney general had advised that the Ben-Gvir appointment was not a violation. But the hearing’s eeriest aspect was that, if the government gets its way, such a case would not even get to court. First, it has already framed legislation that would allow the appointment of any minister whatever their criminal convictions. Secondly, the petitioners were asking the court to strike down Gvir’s appointment on the grounds of its “extreme unreasonableness”—an Israeli legal concept that would be terminated as a cause for judicial review.

Beyond the pale: Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party 
and a government minister, wants to entrench occupation of the West Bank © HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images Beyond the pale: Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party and a government minister, wants to entrench occupation of the West Bank © HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

A further sweeping “reform”, promoted by Netanyahu’s harshly ideological justice minister, Yariv Levin, with support from the hitherto little-known US-billionaire-funded Kohelet Policy Forum, may help the prime minister personally. It suggests that the job of attorney general would be split in two, including a new -government-appointed chief prosecutor who could prolong Netanyahu’s corruption trial by reviewing and perhaps reducing the case against him.

Were Netanyahu’s marathon trial to end in a guilty verdict, his chances on appeal would be improved before a Supreme Court with a new president, also chosen by the government. And he would be among those who could benefit from a remarkable plan allowing gifts to public officials for legal or medical purposes—a naked licence for corruption.

To avoid facing legal judgement, Netanyahu could have passed an equivalent law to the one that makes a sitting French president immune from prosecution. But his coalition allies didn’t allow something so simple. The judicial overhaul also relieves the ultra-orthodox of the fear that the Supreme Court will rule their exemption from the military draft (among other religious causes) unconstitutional. Meanwhile, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir want to liberate themselves from a famous 1979 Supreme Court judgement inhibiting them from large-scale seizure of registered private Palestinian land in the West Bank, and to ensure that all the 100-plus settlement outposts, most of which are illegal even in Israeli law, are granted “authorisation”. “For that they need to get rid of the [present] judges,” says Yehuda Shaul, co-director of Ofek, the Israel Centre for Public Affairs. “The coalition parties are saying to Netanyahu, ‘you’re gonna get something that serves you while we get something that serves us’. It’s very transactional.”

All this amounts to what Hebrew University’s David Kretzmer, emeritus professor of international and constitutional law, calls a “constitutional revolution” that concentrates “almost all power in the hands of the executive branch of government, without any effective controls”. A popular chant during protests is shalosh rashuyot / ve lo echad pachot—“three authorities [government, Knesset and the Supreme Court] and not one less”. In reality, the Knesset majority is much more controlled by the coalition and its party machines than, say, the UK parliament is. As Kretzmer notes, an independent judiciary is, in Israel, “the only effective check on the abuse of governmental power”.

Only once during his cool analysis of a judicial overhaul that he deeply opposes did Kretzmer vent his frustration at the international reaction to the new government. It was not “good enough” for foreign governments to boycott individual racist ministers like Ben-Gvir. “The -person who appointed him is Mr Netanyahu. He should be persona non grata until he gets rid of the racist ministers in his government. He was prepared to fire his minister of defence when he warned there’s a security threat to the country. But he doesn’t fire a minister [Smotrich] who says that the government should wipe out a whole Palestinian village.”

 * * *

The potential impact on Israelis of this “constitutional revolution” is real and frightening—and more so for the Palestinians. But -Palestinian rights, or the lack of them, are not a primary subject of the demonstrations. Even among protesters from the mainstream left, many focus on the immediate threat to Israel’s own polity.

At each demonstration there are valiant, and seemingly growing, Israeli groups brandishing banners with slogans like “Democracy and Occupation Cannot Co-exist”—unarguable given that several million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem have no say in the government that ultimately controls their lives. Yet only a minority of Israeli demonstrators see occupation or equal rights for Arabs and Jews as key to their revolt. As such, many avoid a critical point about the government they are protesting against, however good their other reasons for doing so. For Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and indeed Levin—long an enthusiast for a “Greater Israel” extending from Jordan to the Mediterranean—the entrenchment of the occupation, the growth in the number of West Bank settlers (which they hope will reach one million) and the ever-increasing subordination of Palestinians are not side effects of their actions, but their central mission. In pursuit of this end, dismantling the restraints of the Supreme Court is vital. 

This is well understood by many Palestinians, including the victims of the rampage by at least 100 settlers, many armed, through Huwara and its outlying villages on the night of 26th February. Beside burning houses and cars and shooting dead a 37-year-old Palestinian, the settlers seriously wounded at least four others by gunfire, stabbing and beatings with iron bars. Many more were harmed by tear gas. But when the mayor, Moeen Dmaidi, interviewed compensation claimants a few weeks later, the papers on his desk dealt mainly with the $5m of damage to property he said that the violence had caused. Of Smotrich’s notorious remark, the mayor said: “If [Palestinian president] Abu Mazen called for [the nearby settlement of] Yitzhar to be ‘wiped out’, what would the world do? What would Israel do?”

The Huwara rampage sent genuine shockwaves through much of mainstream Israel, particularly as it seems to have been largely unchecked by the security forces. The town sprawls along Highway 60, the main north-south road through the West Bank, used here by both Palestinians and settlers. Unusually, there is no bypass road for settlers to avoid the town, so some patronise its businesses. That and Huwara’s location in Area C—the sector of occupied territory designated by the Oslo accords to be under direct Israeli military control—supports the mayor’s assertion that the killing of the two settlers—as well as two subsequent, lesser, Palestinian attacks—were not carried out by its residents.

Ali Nijim, a car dealer who lost five vehicles worth over $100,000 in the destruction, is thinking of moving his business to Nablus. Nijim, 48, told me: “That’s the main purpose. They want us to go somewhere else.” For Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, he said, “it’s part of their ideology”.

Shock waves: burnt-out cars in Huwara in the West Bank, in the aftermath of  a brutal raid by armed settlers this February © ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo Shock waves: burnt-out cars in Huwara in the West Bank, in the aftermath of a brutal raid by armed settlers this February © ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Though only a few kilometres from Huwara, Nablus, a major Palestinian city closed to Israeli civilians, is very different. It has been subject to frequent military raids since January, including a rare daylight one in February that killed at least 10 people in a firefight with militants—four of them civilians—and injured dozens of others. Its teeming old city is the home base of a new armed formation Arīn al-’Usud, or “Lions’ Den”. 

The night before we visited, the group had shot dead Zoheir Khalil Ghalith, a 23-year-old Palestinian it identified as an Israeli informer. In what the group said was a video-recorded confession by a “collaborator”, Ghalith said that he had sex with another man and that Shin Bet had blackmailed him into working for it. 

Outside the old Tuqan Palace where he had been shot was an elongated patch of drying blood and a piece of cardboard stuck in a dustbin announcing, “Here is the traitor”. This grim episode exposed the dark nature of the conflict on both sides. Civilian passersby, nervously declining to give full names, said they approved of the execution. “He betrayed his people, his religion and his family,” said Abu Mohammed, 52. 

Ahmad Tubaileh, 41, a Nablus Fatah adherent just released after 20 years in jail for shooting at soldiers during the second intifada, told me the Lions’ Den was composed of “young men who see there is no peace, no future for their children, no economy and they have no jobs to go to. They are ready to die rather than surrender. They are the conscience of the Palestinian people.” The second intifada had failed, and the “hope of peace” in the two state proposals advanced by the Israeli premier Ehud Olmert during negotiations in 2007 and 2008 had been sabotaged by the Netanyahu-led Israel right. 

If present trends continued, “there will be settlers inside Nablus in five years”, he said. Having entered jail loyal to Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) cause of two states, he now believed in a “single state with two nationalities living in real democracy”. More unexpectedly, he said protesters inside Israel were “educated people who are aware of the abyss they are falling into and are trying to prevent a dictatorship”. If they succeeded, it would be “good for the Palestinians”.

Many views expressed in Huwara and Nablus reflect a deepening of Palestinian despair since the formation of this Israeli government. A poll conducted in March by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR), a thinktank, found that only 27 per cent of Palestinians now support a two-state solution— although that may also reflect widespread disillusionment with the Palestinian Authority (PA) under the ageing and unpopular Mahmoud Abbas. The same poll reported that 68 per cent support the formation of armed groups like Lions’ Den and 61 per cent back a third, armed, intifada. Perhaps the only hope in the poll can be found in the fact that 50 per cent expect Netanyahu’s government to fall because of his internal crisis.

* * *

Palestinians in the West Bank, let alone in Gaza, could not take part in the Israeli protests even if they wanted to. Palestinian citizens of Israel—21 per cent of the population—have that right, though relatively few have yet exercised it. Both sectors have every reason to challenge the right’s depiction of the Supreme Court as a bastion of liberal-leftism. It ruled last year that Israel could evict some 1,000 residents, mainly farmers,   of the West Bank’s South Hebron hills. It failed to overturn the 2018 Nation-State law prescribing that the national right to self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people”. It refused to order a new investigation into the notorious 2017 killing by police of a Palestinian Israeli schoolteacher, Yacoub Abu al-Qiyan.

On the other hand, a “reformed” Supreme Court would halt its protection of Arab parties from a ban that would stop them standing for Knesset membership, something Smotrich openly called for last year. “If the next two vacancies on the Supreme Court are filled by two right-wing conservatives, we are going to wind up out of the Knesset,” says Ayman Odeh, leader of the left-wing and Arab-Jewish Hadash party.

Defeat of the ‘fascist’ forces in government is a necessary but not sufficient solution to the conflict

Odeh tells me, in his home city of Haifa, that he urges Palestinian Israelis to join the demonstrations against the government’s plans “because we are the first that will be affected”. While in most countries “fascism is created by generals and big capital”, he says, in Israel big business and army generals were actually against it. “It’s Kedumim and Beit El [one the settlement where Smotrich now lives and the other where he grew up] that are bringing fascism into Israeli society.”

While protest organisers had initially not wanted people like Odeh to address their rallies, in deference to the minority of demonstrators from the Israeli right, he had, when we spoke, been invited to do so in the overwhelmingly Jewish city of Kfar Saba. Odeh reeled off factors deterring Palestinian Israelis from taking part: the 1976 Land Day when six unarmed protesters against Israeli land seizures had been shot dead by security forces; that over 90 per cent of Arab electors had voted for Ehud Barak as prime minister in 1999 only for him to shun an alliance with the Arab parties; the high death toll of Palestinians at the hands of security forces under the supposedly less malign government before this one; the ubiquitous Israeli national flags at the protests and the involvement in them of leading military figures.

In urging Palestinian citizens of Israel to participate despite all this, Odeh has reasons that go well beyond the issue of the Supreme Court. “We need to take part first to get rid of the fascists,” he said, “and then to build a partnership, a coalition of Jews and Arabs for a real democracy.” This raises the crucial question of whether the mainstream Jewish centre-left can overcome its persistent disdain for a political partnership with Arab parties that is essential if the relentless rightward shift in Israel is to be arrested. 

Israeli police arrest a Palestinian man in Huwara during a Land Day demonstration © Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images Israeli police arrest a Palestinian man in Huwara during a Land Day demonstration © Nasser Ishtayeh/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Odeh claims to detect “an increased understanding” of this among Jewish opposition parties and says that recently he has had a more open dialogue with opposition leaders like Yair Lapid, a centrist and former prime minister, than in the past. He cites the enlistment in the American Civil War of black soldiers in the Union army and the agreement that one of Odeh’s heroes, Frederick Douglass, struck with Lincoln to help him defeat the Confederacy. “Douglass made an important argument to Lincoln: we join you in this war and you will give us our freedom.” The bargain on offer in this striking analogy is clear: the chance for a centre-left government to usher in a more liberal, secular Israel in return for equality for Palestinians inside the green line, and an end to occupation beyond it.

Sane as this proposition is, are the main Jewish opposition parties ready for it? Although Netanyahu claimed, on the Knesset’s re-opening  in early May, that he was seeking a “consensus” on the judicial overhaul, there was little sign that his coalition allies or his opponents were ready for meaningful compromise. But irrespective of  how the crucial court issue is resolved, defeat of the “fascist” forces in   government is a necessary but not sufficient condition of a solution to the conflict, and would require, among much else, serious international engagement.

Women dress as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel in protest against ultra-orthodox elements in Netanyahu’s coalition government © SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo Women dress as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel in protest against ultra-orthodox elements in Netanyahu’s coalition government © SOPA Images Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

That is notably absent for now. Biden chose to castigate Netanyahu over the Supreme Court rather than the expansion of settlements, including the “authorisation” of nine illegal outposts in February. As a minimum, the US and the Europeans should—as Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s foreign ministry told me in March—be using their leverage to press for the democratic internal elections denied to the Palestinians since 2006 by a combination of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The latter would prefer to replace Abbas with a member of his inner circle when he finally goes. The March poll by the PCPSR showed that Marwan Barghouti, in jail for his part in the second intifada, is still the most popular candidate and might just be the leader the Palestinians in occupied territory so dismally lack. But Israel has steadfastly refused to release him. If Barghouti won a presidential election from prison it would be an even more dramatic advance for the Palestinian liberation movement. But there is little sign of Israel’s allies using their leverage in this way.

Yehuda Shaul, whose pro-equality thinktank Ofek seeks a future in which two-states exist side by side, says the fact that there have been four months of demonstrations about democracy gives activists “an opening” to incrementally persuade more citizens that, as the banners proclaim, “democracy and occupation cannot co-exist”. But he believes a just resolution needs a future Israeli prime minister finally to see it as being in their own, and the country’s, self-interest. 

It was the first intifada and the massive international pressure following the first Gulf War that led to the Madrid conference and brought the previously hawkish prime minister Yitzhak Rabin to the negotiating table in 1992 and 1993. Recalling this, Shaul says that a resolution might require “a challenge of even greater magnitude”. While hoping this can be achieved peacefully, he adds: “Today Israel enjoys a relatively cost-free occupation. The only way to move politicians like Lapid towards ending the occupation and a peaceful resolution is a change in the cost-benefit calculation for Israel.”

Clarification: The original text of this article said that “there was little sign that [Netanyahu’s] coalition allies or his opponents were ready for compromise.” This has been amended to say that there was little sign they were ready for “meaningful” compromise, in recognition that talks had been held.