Netanyahu’s Government Delivers a Blow to Israel’s Supposed Democracy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Image source: Кабінет Міністрів України via Wikimedia Commons

After six months of demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in opposition, the right-wing Netanyahu government has finally succeeded in passing its proposed reform to the country’s court system. The courts, under the new legislation will not have a right to overturn legislation passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In addition, the government, meaning Netanyahu and his allies, would have the right to appoint like-minded judges and replace ones who oppose its policies. The opponents of the legislation call this a “coup” as it replaces any checks on the legislative and executive branches.

The opposition to the legislation has been fierce and has mobilized Israel’s wealthy and middle-class citizens. Business, notably high-tech sectors, have openly opposed the court reforms. Even the former Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, has called for civil disobedience to oppose the law. Military reservists, active-duty soldiers, and air force pilots have refused to continue training, threatening to disobey the government if it orders them to mobilize.

The court reforms have pitted so-called “liberal” Israel against the Netanyahu coalition. Behind Netanyahu stand far-right politicians, especially those drawn from the illegal settler movement – religiously motivated settlers who have colonized the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, territories that Israel has held under military occupation since 1967. The military occupation of Palestine has created a settler movement that is impatient with Israel’s slow colonization of Palestinian territories. The state of Israel has looked the other way or meekly opposed the illegal, armed settlement of Palestinian lands. The Supreme Court has often been the only obstacle, however limited, to the settlers. The status quo has so far worked in favor of the settlers. Today the settler population in the West Bank is almost one million, or one tenth of the Israeli population. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built his government on the support off the highly organized and highly motivated settler movement, using fear-mongering bigotry to build its political power whenever Palestinians retaliate against Israeli military and settler violence. It is an open question what Netanyahu’s motivations are except to maintain his own power and prestige. Certainly, he is also motivated by the desire to remain out of prison. Netanyahu faces multiple charges of corruption and bribery, doing favors for his rich friends and their businesses. So long as he remains prime minister, he is immune from facing the trial or the consequences should he be convicted.

The Israeli population that opposes Netanyahu does so for many reasons. Many middle-class Israelis are deeply troubled by the concentration of power in the hands of the presidency. They see the rise of the religious far-right parties in Netanyahu’s coalition as a threat to a more so-called “liberal” way of life, as these parties oppose civil rights, freedom of speech, and rights for LGBTQ people, while demanding special privileges and state subsidies for the orthodox religious Jewish communities in Israel. What’s even more threatening to many Israelis is the loss of business. International corporations are starting to question, and even withdraw, their investments in Israel, seeing the Netanyahu government’s actions as a source of instability and a threat to their profits.

The question that remains entirely absent from the debate in Israel is the question of Palestine. Israel was founded on Palestinian territory in 1948, and militarily seized control of the rest of Palestine in 1967. Israel’s population is more than 20 percent Palestinian, living as second class citizens, discriminated against and denied the same rights and privileges as Israel’s non-Arab majority. The West Bank and Gaza Strip, the Occupied Territories, are home to almost five million Palestinians living under Israeli rule. In other words, the majority of people ruled over by the Israeli state are Palestinians, living with limited or nonexistent rights. Israel is truly an apartheid society in which Palestinians are second-class citizens at best, and militarily dominated with no rights at worst. The priorities of the protesters are shown clearly by the attitude of the air force pilots who, while they protest and say they will disobey orders, were completely willing to follow orders during recent air raids on the West Bank cities of Nablus and Jenin. The vast majority of the protesters oppose Netanyahu and the settler-politicians policies in Israel, but support Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians without question.

The demonstrations in Israel are important because they represent a breakdown of the old “liberal” Israeli order. Netanyahu and his allies no longer care to preserve or celebrate a limited so-called “democracy” with the guarantee of civil rights, even for Israelis. This fact may open the way to a questioning by Israel’s poor, working class, and young people, as to the nature of the society they live in and the oppression of Palestinians upon which it is built. In addition, Western politicians, especially in the U.S., Israel’s most important ally and source of military support, no longer have the excuse that they support Israel because it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

No people who oppresses another can be free, and the situation in Israel demonstrates this vividly. We can have no sympathy for those who want to preserve the status quo, or turn back the clock of history, to a time when they could comfortably ignore reality. The colonization of Palestine, the denial of rights to Palestinians, and the military and paramilitary forces that have imposed this rule are the foundations of the Netanyahu regime. Today, it seems, they want to discard the mask they have worn, of a liberal, tolerant democracy, in order to carry through their project to the maximum – the genocidal displacement of Palestinians. It is no accident that settler violence in the West Bank has increased dramatically, accompanied by violent rhetoric from Netanyahu and his allies. Once their power is fully secured, we can only imagine much worse violence against the Palestinians, by the state of Israel and its armed forces, and by the settlers. The racism, the genocidal policies, and the violence perpetrated by the state of Israel are impossible to excuse or ignore. The only solution can be the dismantling of the Israeli apartheid state, and the rise of a new social order that guarantees the rights of everybody, but first and foremost the Palestinians.