It’s more difficult than ever to argue that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and that its relationship with the US is unwavering, as he pursues illiberal legislation that would eliminate the independence of the judiciary.
Scholars and human rights experts have long probed the health of rule of law and civil rights in the country. Now, Netanyahu has advanced a radical judicial overhaul that would turn the country into unchecked majoritarian rule. As the Israeli parliament or Knesset was due to vote on the changes to the courts, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant spoke out against Netanyahu. Hundreds of thousands of protesters had already been demonstrating weekly against Netanyahu and his far-right coalition. After Netanyahu fired the defense minister on Sunday, more than 600,000 Israelis turned out in the streets. They effectively shut down the country on Monday, and led Netanyahu to postpone voting on the judicial overhaul package till after the Knesset’s holiday for Passover.
The movement is changing the discourse around Israel. Vocal criticism of Israel has been a third rail of American politics, but earlier this month 16 Jewish members of Congress wrote an open letter raising their fears about the overhaul. The Biden administration has been slow to clearly articulate how dire the situation has become, but a former Israel prime minister told me that President Joe Biden must step up.
Whether or not Netanyahu moves forward with the vote, whether or not his coalition fractures, his aggressive actions have already exposed three core questions about Israel’s democracy, its security, and its relationship with Jews in the American diaspora.
What’s the future of Israel’s flawed democracy?
Israel has often told the world that it’s the “only democracy in the Middle East.” But it has never been much of a democracy for Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel, residents, or those living under occupation. Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced systematic discrimination from the state, and new laws in recent years — and in recent months — have made it worse for them. Israel has often been called a state that’s both Jewish and a democracy. In reality, it is increasingly a Jewish democracy. And only now that it may no longer be a democracy for Israelis has so much of the country organized.
“I do not refer to Israel as a democracy even before the judicial overhaul … because of its long-perpetuated occupation of millions of people who are not involved in any of the processes that govern their lives,” said Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli human rights lawyer.
For all of Netanyahu’s illiberal moves, however, some say the vibrant pushback shows the vitality of the country’s institutions. My colleague Zack Beauchamp emphasizes that the occupation and Netanyahu’s own brazenness has corrupted the country’s governance. He argues that the mass mobilization across Israel shows the strength of Israeli democracy in the face of existential challenges. But, as he notes, even if the Israeli protests are successful, issues will remain.
Importantly, the occupation of the West Bank is likely to continue. Palestinians living there will have no voting rights, no citizenship, no say in how they live. The protests will not lead to democracy for all people in Israel and Palestine. Some protesters — like a group at Hebrew University who were chanting “Democracy for everyone, from the river to sea” earlier this month — might recognize the deeper issues with the country’s governance. But that does not appear to be a universal position among the movement.
And Netanyahu’s response to the protests hasn’t been promising. Monday, as part of Netanyahu’s new arrangement to push off voting on the judicial overhaul, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was promised authority over a new national guard.
Ben Gvir is a serial inciter of Palestinians who, according to the magazine Jewish Currents, “has been indicted 53 times, seven of which ended in convictions, including once for supporting a terrorist organization.” And now Ben Gvir effectively has a private militia.
“It’s a new armed agency that basically will be dedicated to patrolling Palestinians-with-Israeli-citizenship neighborhoods in binational cities,” Sfard told me. “It’s part of the extreme right’s pursuing a complete surrender of any kind of Palestinian equal participation in Israeli public life.”
Many of the country’s undemocratic trends date back years and years. Some Israeli historians have argued that Israel has never been a democracy. This was made clear 2018 when a law was passed that made the country the nation-state of the Jewish people — that is, a democracy for Jews and not for others. Palestinian members of the Knesset called it a law of apartheid, “a law of Jewish supremacy and told us that we will always be second-class citizens,” as lawmaker Ayman Odeh put it at the time.
“What kind of democracy is it that has a population that has no voice in how it’s ruled?” Rashid Khalidi, a historian at Columbia University, told me recently.
Now, Netanyahu and his coalition are forcing questions about Israel’s democracy — or lack thereof — to the fore.
Will the US commitment to Israel remain ironclad?
The Biden administration has criticized Netanyahu’s brazen judicial reforms. On Sunday, a statement from White House spokesperson Adrienne Watson expressed concern and called on Israeli leaders to “find a compromise as soon as possible.”
But a line was tacked onto the end of the statement that seemed to be a contextualization of how far the White House was willing to go in its criticism. It concluded by saying that “US support for Israel’s security and democracy remains ironclad.”
“Bone deep,” was how Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, described the US-Israel relationship in January.
The US is Israel’s closest security partner and depends on it. What would it take for the US to readjust or withdraw its commitment?
Netanyahu’s coalition consists of far-right settlers who have tested the US-Israel relationship. Last week, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman summoned Israel’s ambassador to Washington to the State Department and criticized Israel for the provocative repeal of a 2005 act that may bring settlers back to the northern West Bank.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich drew White House criticism for comments (he later walked back) for calling for a Palestinian town to be erased. Then, last week, he rejected that there even is a Palestinian people. That type of dehumanization can lead to new extremes. At the same time, Israeli leaders are transforming the way the occupation is managed, moving it away from military and toward civilian rule under Ben Gvir. Without pushback, it will lead to an ever-more emboldened settler leadership in the country. “Palestinians will pay the price for the pause on judicial reform,” said scholar Dana El Kurd.
But at what point would the Biden administration decide that there is sunlight between it and Israel on matters of security?
The settler rampage on the Palestinian village of Huwara last month causing one death and 300 injuries, which came after a Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers nearby, was an indication of where the US will draw at least something of a line. State Department spokesperson Ned Price called the rampage “completely unacceptable” and called for an investigation.
Settler attacks are already a regular feature of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank, but if there is another coordinated rampage, will it lead to Congress exercising oversight over arms sales to Israel? The Biden administration is unlikely to implement consequences for Israel beyond not meeting with ministers like Smotrich, but that could change. It’s not yet clear what Biden’s reported White House invitation to Netanyahu means, and what the president is willing to say behind closed doors that he won’t convey to Israel publicly.
Even the most ironclad relationship can be bent out of shape.
Will the American Jewish community break from Israel?
When Smotrich visited the United States earlier this month, he was met by hundreds of protesters — from the American Jewish community.
One-hundred and forty-five Jewish leaders signed a statement that said he shouldn’t be provided a platform. “His presence in the US to address primarily Jewish audiences would be an affront to American Jewish values,” they wrote.
Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, signed the statement and joined the protests. She says it was the first time in her life that she has protested an Israeli government official. “In a way that we’ve never seen before, there is a deep and growing concern among American Jews as it relates to Israel’s future,” Soifer told me.
That deep and growing concern, just like the Biden administration’s concern, may not ultimately lead to policy changes in the United States. A new Gallup poll shows that, for the first time, Democrats sympathize more with Palestinians than Israelis. Nevertheless, Evangelical Christians remain one of Israel’s strongest constituencies in American politics.
But it does seem there’s a deeper understanding emerging that for Israel to be a democracy it can’t just confront the far-right’s legal challenges, but also the entrenched occupation and the reality of oppression of Palestinians. “There is no going back to the status quo from before,” Sfard told me.
Netanyahu may have paused the judicial overhaul for a month or so, but his legal assault has already revealed the hollowness of Israeli democracy, the growing rift with Washington, and the tension point with the American Jewish community.