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EXPLAINER: Why Israel Is Facing a Democratic Crisis

While protests against proposals from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have quieted, there remains an ‘overwhelming amount of pressure’ in Israel amid concerns for democracy.

By Elliott Davis Jr.
March 30, 2023

U.S. News & World Report
TOPSHOT – Israeli military veterans wave national flags during a rally against the government’s judicial reform bill, along a highway near Netanya on March 28, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP) (Photo by JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Israeli military veterans wave national flags during a rally against the government’s judicial reform bill, along a highway near Netanya on March 28, 2023. (PHOTO BY JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

A stretch of fierce protests against proposals to weaken Israel’s courts seem to be tapering off following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Monday announcement that he would suspend his proposed overhaul.

The country’s Histadrut labor union said it would not carry out a mass demonstration that had been planned for Tuesday. Those updates came after Israel had already plunged into crisis, with its largest airport shuttering, its banks closing and military reservists joining the protest fray.

READ: Netanyahu to ‘Suspend’ Judicial Overhaul as Pro-Democracy Protests Reach Crisis Levels

But while the situation has calmed – for now – some predict the people of Israel are likely to stay on edge due to broader concerns about the state of the country’s democracy.

“There’s an overwhelming amount of pressure in Israeli society,” says Jeremy Pressman, a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut and expert on subjects including protests and Middle East politics.

Here is how – and why – Israel arrived on this shaky democratic ground.

Who Is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Netanyahu, currently in his sixth non-consecutive term, is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. He leads the nationalist, right-wing Likud party. Born in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu spent his high school years in the United States before returning to Israel in 1967, according to his biography on the website of the Knesset, the country’s parliament. He served his first term as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 before returning to the position in 2009 following a campaign in which he took a hard-line position on national security.

Netanyahu was ousted in 2021 after serving as leader for more than a decade – years during which he became estranged from President Barack Obama, who sought to reconnect the U.S. with the Muslim world and promised a more critical consideration of Israel. Relations with the United States strained as Obama pursued his signature foreign policy achievement, a deal that would lift crippling sanctions against Iran in exchange for the Islamic Republic halting its nuclear enrichment program. Netanyahu in 2015 ahead of Israeli elections delivered an address to a joint session of Congress that was widely seen as a diplomatic slap at the U.S. president.

He enjoyed a far better relationship with President Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem – a longtime Israeli priority – and whose administration secured recognition of Israel from several of its Arab neighbors.

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Netanyahu reclaimed the post of prime minister at the end of 2022, assuming leadership of the most right-wing and religiously conservative government in Israel’s 74-year history. Along with the rightward drift have come accusations of creeping authoritarianism and corruption.

President Joe Biden has taken a more measured, pragmatic approach with the Israeli leader, but tensions – especially recently – have grown.

For nearly three years, Netanyahu has been on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, according to the AP. He maintains his innocence and says the accusations are part of a “witch hunt” led by a biased media, law enforcement and justice system.

Recent local polling found 68% of respondents giving the prime minister poor marks for his current performance, while 25% rated him positively.

Why Are Israelis Protesting?
Protesters’ ire stems from a move made shortly after Netanyahu returned to power, in which he proposed implementing new procedures for choosing Supreme Court judges that would include giving politicians more sway in the process while also limiting court rulings against Knesset laws, according to The Associated Press.

The turmoil intensified over the weekend – with reports of thousands of people taking to the streets – following news of Netanyahu dismissing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said recently that the judicial reform legislation posed “immediate and tangible danger” to Israeli state security after experiencing resistance within the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces when some reservists refused to train in solidarity with national strikes.

But concern over the Supreme Court reforms are just part of the puzzle, notes Pressman, who points to other troubling proposals Netanyahu has put forth that aren’t getting as much attention, such as rules to allow unlimited gifts to public servants, grant prime ministers greater immunity from prosecution and allow convicted politicians to serve as government ministers. It’s all an effort for the prime minister and his supporters to “further entrench their rule,” Pressman says.

“A majority of Israeli Jews have a real fear about losing democracy amidst a Netanyahu push for authoritarianism,” he adds. “Many other bills reinforce this fear.”

MORE: Israel’s Palestinians Mostly Sit Out Democracy Protests
How Has Netanyahu Responded to the Protests?
The prime minister on Monday announced he would suspend the plans for judicial reform “in order to allow time to try and reach [a] broad consensus,” according to a translation on his government website. He added that he wants to take a “time-out for dialogue” because he is “unwilling to cut the nation in two,” but stopped short of abandoning the controversial proposals.

“While we will not give up on the path for which we were elected, we will make the effort to achieve broad agreement,” Netanyahu said.

The Israel Democracy Institute said in a statement after the news that the postponement would give all parties an opportunity to “turn this crisis into a historic constitutional opportunity.”

Pressman notes, however, that Netanyahu is a “really savvy politician.”

“People don’t really trust him, obviously,” he says. “But is this a moment when the protest movement should pause? Is this a moment when the protest movement should push harder? I imagine some Israelis are gonna think this is a chance to take a break, let the politicians negotiate.”

How Have Other Country Leaders Addressed the Situation?
Biden, who has described Netanyahu as a friend in the past, told reporters on Tuesday he had no near-term plans to invite the prime minister to the White House.

“Like many strong supporters of Israel, I’m very concerned,” Biden said, according to a White House transcript. “And I’m concerned that they get this straight. They cannot continue down this road. And I’ve sort of made that clear … hopefully, the prime minister will act in a way that he is going to try to work out some genuine compromise. But that remains to be seen.”

The U.S. president later said he hopes Netanyahu “walks away” from the judicial reform proposals. The prime minister responded on Twitter, saying Israel is a “sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”

Elsewhere, French President Emmanuel Macron – who presides over a country experiencing protests of its own – told Netanyahu “bluntly” back in February that if the prime minister proceeded with his plans, “Paris should conclude that Israel has emerged from a common conception of democracy,” according to a translation of an article from the French newspaper Le Monde.

What’s Next?
It’s unclear how long the negotiations Netanyahu hinted at in his suspension announcement will last. Some onlookers see the postponement initially as a “great move” by the prime minister, says Pressman, because it “takes the air out of the sails of the protest movement just as they’re peaking.” The idea, then, is that Netanyahu would come back in a month or two and push the reforms through.

But Pressman is skeptical of this notion – not that it’s something the prime minister wouldn’t try but whether the move would be successful.

“I’m skeptical that the protests can’t re-inflate,” he adds. “I’d actually think that this delaying tactic won’t work that well. It’ll buy some time. Maybe the negotiations yield something, but I don’t think it’ll deflate the protest movement. I think people are in too deep, are too energized and see this as too central to the future of the state.”

Tags: Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, courts

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