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Israelis’ evolving pushback to democratic erosion under Netanyahu

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This article is part of the Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance Initiative, MEI’s look at the evolving threats to freedom, political rights, and civil liberties, as well as the struggles to achieve fair, transparent, and representative governance across the MENA region.

The fight for democracy is a global one, taking place, among other corners of the world, in the United States, Europe, South America, as well as the Middle East and North Africa. When it comes to the Middle East, Israel has become a particular hot spot — and at a game-changing moment. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government includes extremist coalition members in key positions. Only a couple of years ago, these individuals were largely considered illegitimate, even taking into account the rightward trend in Israeli politics. Today, they hold unprecedented power, and together with Netanyahu and other top ministers, they are advancing changes that seek to shatter basic liberal values and democratic institutions.

Yet a movement of Israelis who resist the new Netanyahu government is crystallizing and taking initial steps to push back against democratic erosion. It will need to evolve quickly and effectively to make an impact. As this movement seeks to draw lessons from the experiences of others, including Americans who resisted the unprecedented actions of former President Donald Trump and his supporters, it could benefit from some international helping hands along the way.

Realization sets in

In the first two months since the Nov. 1 elections, all eyes were on Netanyahu, as he worked to seal coalition agreements with his far-right and ultra-Orthodox partners. Netanyahu was handing out portfolios, reshuffling ministerial responsibilities, committing to legislation, and allocating budgets. In parallel, his party members and coalition partners were taking a victory lap — granting media interviews and posting celebratory messages on social media about their future policy intentions.

For the nearly 50% of the Israeli population who voted for anti-Netanyahu parties, this was both a reality check and a wake-up call. They began to understand what society would soon face. The month of November was characterized by disappointment, frustration, and soul-searching over the election defeat; but in December, new feelings emerged, based on what Israelis heard their soon-to-be leaders announce in public.

A sense of deep concern for Israel’s social cohesion, democratic nature, security situation, regional relations, and global standing became widespread, amplified by provocative actions like National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount/al-Aqsa Mosque compound and the regional and international reactions it sparked. These sentiments were coupled with disgust at the racist and discriminatory remarks uttered by far-right politicians now in government positions.

Changing the dynamics of opposition

In recent years, the anti-Netanyahu camp had become accustomed to leading a personalized campaign that mostly limited itself to rebuking Netanyahu for his corruption. But now, while the designated prime minister’s trial remains a popular topic on the opposition’s agenda, there are many other issues to speak out against. New messaging and new modalities of action are needed. A large segment of the population in Israel has begun to reflect on what could and should be done in light of this new political reality. But there are no easy answers.

The Israeli left’s shrunken parliamentary representation after the elections, the infighting among opposition parties, the significant majority that the Netanyahu bloc holds in the Knesset, and the anticipated judiciary reform that will shatter Israel’s system of checks and balances have all raised questions about what the anti-Netanyahu camp can hope to achieve. Whereas examples of other countries that recently experienced their own democratic erosion have sparked further concerns that Israel might be at a game-changing moment from which there will be no easy return. The powerful words of award-winning author David Grossman, published on the front page of Haaretz, echo that sentiment. Grossman warns that Netanyahu is sowing the seeds of anarchic chaos, hatred, and violence, which are leading Israel to a catastrophe and possibly to a point of no return.

It was in this context that the month of December 2022 was so important. While pro-peace and pro-democracy Israelis continued to feel shock — almost on a daily basis — at the statements of incoming ministers and leaked clauses of almost-signed coalition agreements, they also turned to action. An appetite for pushback against the new government became evident and swept through multiple sectors of Israeli society. The first phase of this pushback was mostly declaratory and did not bring many tangible outcomes, but it set the stage for the next phases of opposition and spotlighted the looming threats yet to come from the ruling coalition.

Israelis did not flock to the streets in large numbers in December, although some demonstrations took place, notably in front of the Knesset during the swearing in ceremony of the new government. The sense of urgency for mass protests was not there yet, in part because the government was still establishing itself. Things only began to more sharply intensify and transform into a second phase in January, when mass weekly demonstrations began taking place in Tel Aviv, drawing larger crowds every Saturday night.

The first signs of public pushback

In its earliest phase, at the beginning of December, the pushback was limited to rebuking the statements and intentions of members of the incoming governing coalition, not criticism of any concrete policy measures (as the government was not yet formed). But a series of uncoordinated, grassroots-driven initiatives had started to emerge. These were mostly individual actions taken by professional networks, public figures, and companies — all stepping up to voice their concern, opposition, and commitment to democratic values. It was not yet an organized protest led by the major organizations in the social change camp. Such protest only began to materialize in January.

As often happens in Israeli public life, these initial steps had a domino effect. Sporadic actions taken in early December evolved into a larger trend within a few weeks. Several issues that touch upon Israel’s core values, the divisions among Israelis, and the very structure of Israel’s democratic system came to the forefront.

It began with Netanyahu’s decision to grant Avi Maoz, the leader of the far-right and anti-LGBTQ Noam party (and its sole member in the Knesset), control over extracurricular school programming. As a response, and within a few days, 170 school principals wrote to Netanyahu asking him to reverse his decision; 600 teachers and educators signed an open letter stating they will not cooperate with problematic programs advanced by Maoz; and over 50 municipalities and mayors (including the forum of 14 women mayors) publicly committed to continue and self-fund existing programming that might be opposed by the government.

Next was the government’s declared intention to speedily advance legal reforms designed to weaken the judiciary and enable the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings under certain conditions. Among those who initially spoke up against this were prominent legal figures, both current and former. Supreme Court President Esther Hayut delivered a public statement against any move that would limit the independence of the judiciary. The head of the Israeli Bar Association and several former chief justices followed suit, going on the record with critical comments of their own.

The messages about judicial reform reinforced a general concern about the fate of Israeli democracy. It led the mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, to plaster a gigantic copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence onto the side of a municipal building; 400 high-tech workers, executives, and investors wrote a letter to Netanyahu warning of devastating consequences to Israel and its economy; and additional open letters — each with a unique slant — were published (some as large ads in the media) by more than 1,000 ex-Air Force officials, dozens of school principals, dozens of retired judges, over 100 retired ambassadors, 650 academics and individuals from the fields of humanities and culture, the Academic Community for Israeli Society (which has some 2,000 members), and more.

A domino effect taking place

The first phase of pushback really began to snowball following subsequent media interviews by two far-right religious members of the Knesset (MKs), Orit Strook and Simcha Rothman, who stated that a doctor could deny treatment to certain patients under certain conditions and that a hotel owner could refuse to serve people on religious grounds. These statements referred to an intended discrimination law, included in the coalition agreements, clearly aimed at Arabs and members of the LGBTQ community. The lawmakers’ remarks sparked outrage, leading to a new, larger wave of public protest.

Discount Bank, one of Israel’s largest banks, was the first private sector Israeli company to act, announcing a board decision to decline credit to any entity practicing discrimination. A series of firms — including from the high-tech, insurance, investment, and tourism sectors — followed suit. While not having immediate consequences, these statements signaled a willingness by businesses, which often shy away from political debates, to step into the ring.

The healthcare sector also responded, reiterating its commitment to provide the best possible treatment to all patients, regardless of their background. Dozens of health officials published an open letter; the Israeli Medical Association released a statement against the politicization of the healthcare sector; the heads of the National Association of Nurses and the Pharmaceutical Society of Israel provided their own statements; and physicians at various hospitals undertook initiatives like posting videos and hanging signs on their office doors.

Municipalities showed leadership here too. The mayor of Herzliya, Moshe Fadlon, announced that his city would not issue business licenses to anyone who discriminates against others; Mayor Huldai of Tel Aviv stated that the new government’s discrimination law resembles actions against African Americans and Jews in the southern United States 90 years ago; and the mayor of Mevasseret, Zion Yoram Shimon, announced a decision not to cooperate with any entity or elected official who advocates discrimination.

When journalist Nadav Eyal revealed in Yediot Aharonot that the Noam party prepared secret lists of LGBTQ people in Israeli public life, opposition MKs convened a public emergency conference to defend LGBTQ rights; a protest was held on the streets of Tel Aviv; dozens of principals posted signs at the entrances to their schools emphasizing the importance of democracy, freedom, human rights, tolerance, and equality; and additional statements were released by academics, educators, and public figures.

Assessing the first phase of pushback

The first — relatively limited — phase of pushback against the new government involved Israelis from the fields of education, academia, diplomacy, military, business, judiciary, local governance, health and civil society, and these groups are likely to remain involved as the movement progresses and evolves. But notably, it has so far generally lacked Arab participation, other than in actions taken by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working for Jewish-Arab equality and in an initiative to launch a new Jewish-Arab party. Moreover, the pushback movement in December did not yet focus much on issues related to the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians — other than, for example, a public event organized by Peace Now and Haaretz. On the Jewish side, a debate was sparked whether highlighting Jewish-Arab inequalities or expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians is conducive to the opposition movement or not; while among Israel’s Arab population, a prevailing sense was that their struggle for rights is a long-lasting one, preceding the new government and not necessarily highly influenced by it, and should thus be better conducted via other means.

Phase one of the pushback took place while most big NGOs were wrapping up their 2022 activities, strategizing, fundraising, adapting, and reorganizing. Therefore, they did not play a major role, although their voice was heard and their activists participated in and echoed the initiatives that took place. Some of these organizations have since started organizing public conferences and panels that will be held in the months to come, to educate the public, raise awareness, and reflect on what else could be done.

Finally, the initial, December actions against the incoming Netanyahu government occurred during a transition period in terms of political leadership. Without a strong left-wing opposition in the Knesset (Meretz had not passed the electoral threshold, and Labor is weak), and prior to the possible emergence of new grassroots leaders (as happened in the 2011 social protest). As new unofficial networks of civil society and political activists were just starting to form, the influential public voices at this phase were mostly of veteran figures, such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and Tel Aviv Mayor Huldai.

The moment the prospect of democratic erosion became truly real was on Jan. 4, when Israel’s incoming Minister of Justice Yariv Levin appeared on primetime TV to announce the advancement of dramatic legal reforms that would undermine the Israeli judiciary and alter basic pillars of the country’s democracy. This marked a transition from weeks of non-binding declarations of intent by future coalition members to formal governmental policies announced by the new people in power.

At the same time, it catalyzed an even sharper escalation and transformation of the protest movement into its next phase, characterized, in part, by mass street demonstrations against radical and discriminatory policies of the Netanyahu government. A large crowd of 80,000 showed up for the demonstration in Tel Aviv on Jan. 14, while protests were also taking place in front of the President’s House in Jerusalem and in Haifa. As weekly demonstrations continue, the numbers of participants and locations are likely to rise, mobilizing additional sectors and catalyzing new types of pushback actions.

An internationalist way forward

This first phase was a prelude. Now that the government has been established and actual policies are being advanced, the challenge of how to resist is crystallizing in the minds of the opposition. In that regard, as pro-democracy Israelis make significant strides in their public campaigns and concrete actions, they should increasingly see themselves as part of a larger international community facing similar challenges.

Democratic backsliding is a global phenomenon, and there are models and best practices of how to oppose it that can be learned from. The Indivisible movement in the U.S., and the role played by liberal mayors in countries like Hungary, Poland, and Turkey, are relevant examples that Israelis can familiarize themselves with. But, it is not only about learning, it is also about creating more international partnerships, with like-minded leaders, individuals, and organizations, which can enable coordination and joint action, serving both the local and global cause of advancing democracy.

In turn, international actors concerned about the health of Israeli democracy will need to not only monitor and respond to what the Israeli government is doing, but also keep track of how pro-democracy Israelis are working to safeguard their country’s identity and offer them support.

Steps the international community and NGOs can take to back and empower Israelis pursuing liberal-democratic norms and values include:

  • Regular meetings of visiting American and European officials with pro-democracy Israelis;

  • efforts to highlight their actions and amplify their voices;

  • financial and political support, as well as sharing of relevant expertise;

  • initiatives to foster cooperation and solidarity with international allies; and

  • regular public statements advocating a values-based approach to bilateral relations.

Dramatic realities are unfolding in Israel. How far they will go is not yet clear. The trajectory will be largely shaped by the effectiveness of domestic actors as they seek to resist democratic erosion; but the situation will also be impacted by how Israel’s friends in the world respond. A “business as usual” or “wait-and-see” approach is not helpful in this case. The new reality necessitates that support for Israel now includes a clear international commitment to help safeguard its democracy.

 

Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute.

Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images


The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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