By Daniel Sokatch, International CEO of the New Israel Fund
This week, Israel was in headlines all around the world. The protest movement that stopped its judicial coup in its tracks has held the world’s attention — and rightly so. This is a moment to congratulate the protestors — Netanyahu pressed pause on his plan to gut the fragile architecture of Israel’s democratic checks and balances because of their efforts. But, even as we celebrate, we cannot stop protesting. Too much remains on the line.
Now is the moment to recharge and connect the dots. Netanyahu has pledged to renew his judicial overhaul drive after the Knesset’s Passover brak. And we cannot forget that there is another, quieter, but equally concerning revolution also taking place right now in the West Bank. Netanyahu is quietly transferring control over the occupation’s bureaucracy to an extremist civilian minister, Bezalel Smotrich, in what amounts to de jure annexation according to preeminent Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. This revolution is inextricably linked to the battle for the independence of Israel’s judiciary.
First, let’s understand what is going on right now because, well, it’s been a whirlwind. Netanyahu’s extremist coalition has been in power for just about three months—and Israelis have been protesting in the streets since almost the beginning. This Knesset session, which ends this weekend, was characterized by law after anti-democratic law — it was a grab bag of the far-right’s worst ideas. Just last week, they passed a law that severely limits the ways in which the Prime Minister can be declared unfit for office and, also not long ago, a bill that strips citizenship from (and deports) Palestinian citizens of Israel convicted of terrorism if they accepted money from the PA.
But these are not the laws that brought Israelis to the streets: that was the package of proposed laws that would effectively undermine judicial independence and end the Supreme Court’s ability to conduct judicial review. Specifically, the law that was meant to pass this week would have given members of the ruling coalition a majority on the committee to appoint judges in place of legal professionals (and while coalition members argue, disingenuously, that this proposed law merely resembles the American system of appointing judges, NIF International Board member Yael Sternhell takes that argument apart brilliantly here) .
So as protests reached a fever pitch last week, and more and more military reservists from the air force and elite IDF units announced their intention to refuse to serve, something snapped. Likud Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after hearing for days from increasingly worried military and security leaders that the judicial coup was adversely impacting the military morale and preparedness during a time of rising regional tensions and dangers, declared that he was now opposed to the judicial coup: “This is a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state…I will not take part in this.” In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately fired him, triggering an unprecedented and spontaneous eruption of protests across the country, and a general strike supported by Israel’s centralized Labor Federation, or Histadrut.
When the country shut down — universities shut down, malls were closed, highways were blocked, and flights leaving from Ben Gurion Airport were grounded — Netanyahu faced a very difficult choice. On the one hand, he was under intense pressure from extremists in his coalition like National Security Minister Ben-Gvir to continue pushing the judicial coup. On the other, he faced the possibility of a total breakdown of Israeli society. And so Netanyahu blinked. He pressed pause on the legislation, announcing that he would reintroduce it after the Knesset’s Passover break. Meanwhile, representatives of the coalition and the opposition are meant to meet for negotiations to find a compromise under the auspices of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog. Perhaps a genuine compromise will be achieved, or perhaps Bibi will try to bury this legislation another way, but it is also possible that this is merely a delay and that we will see the resurgence of this debate when the Knesset returns from its recess — in which case, the people will return to the streets. No matter what, we cannot become complacent, and we will remain vigilant.
But this pause also came at a steep cost. In exchange for not breaking up the government, Netanyahu promised Ben-Gvir, a violent extremist who was convicted of incitement to racism and rejected from army service for his radical views, that he would be granted a National Guard under his command. In other words, a private militia. As you can imagine, Arab citizens, protesters, and human rights activists see this as an Iran-style paramilitary force that Ben Gvir will use to terrorize and intimidate them. Already, we’ve seen roving gangs of pro-judicial overhaul thugs stopping drivers in Jerusalem and attacking them if they’re Arab, in videos and images reminiscent of the darkest moments of May 2021.
Ultimately, Ben-Gvir wants to annex the West Bank and impose his brand of militant, fanatical Jewish supremacy everywhere. With the pause on the judicial revolution, we are reminded that the “status quo” in the West Bank is not really a status quo at all — the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank are getting worse day by day. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich remains in charge of the Coordinator of Government Affairs in the Territories (COGAT) and the Israeli Civil Administration, the Israeli military units which control Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank. You may remember Smotrich as the minister who has proudly described himself as a “fascist homophobe” and called for the State of Israel to wipe the Palestinian town of Huwarra off the map after settlers carried out a pogrom there. He is the one tasked with implementing the system of control in the West Bank that grants rights to Israeli settlers while denying those same rights to Palestinians living on the same land — a system Israeli and international human rights groups say amounts to apartheid under international law.
Last week, before any of the balagan with Yoav Gallant, before the general strike, before Netanyahu hit pause on the judicial revolution, the coalition passed another piece of legislation with potentially devastating consequences. They repealed a piece of the Disengagement Law — a 2005 law related to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank — that prohibited Israelis from settling at four settlements that existed before the disengagement. Settlers still set up outposts at the sites of these former settlements and are periodically demolished by the military. This amendment allows settlers to return to, among others, Homesh, an illegal outpost settlement that is virtually synonymous with settler violence. In response, the Israeli ambassador to the US was summoned to the State Department to hear of Washington’s anger at the partial repeal, just the latest sign that Israel’s radical ruling coalition is doing real damage to the US-Israel relationship.
This legislative repeal is emblematic of Israel’s modus operandi in the West Bank: making legal what was illegal — under both international and Israeli law. That is why the pro-settler factions of Netanyahu’s government want to dismantle judicial independence and any other checks on the power of the Knesset and military. They do not want the pesky Supreme Court or attorney general to get in the way of their goal: to expropriate as much Palestinian land for settlers as possible and to make life untenable for Palestinians.
The “status quo” we are returning to now that the judicial revolution is on pause is untenable and requires that we remain on high alert. As Pesach and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan are set to coincide next week, always a situation in which tensions soar, virtually everyone in the region is bracing for an explosion of violence. Against this backdrop, the arsonists in the ruling coalition continue to stoke racism and fear among their followers.
Amidst this fraught backdrop, the defenders of democracy and shared society cannot rest. Now is not the time to rest on our laurels — it is the time to keep the pressure on those who would destroy both. And that is exactly what the New Israel Fund and our partners will continue doing.