Last month, Israel experienced protests, strikes, and violence over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to change the country’s courts. Many Americans expressed surprise, as Israel has been a stable democracy for decades, aside from turmoil related to the Palestinian conflict. The country’s growing start-up and tech sector has helped it become wealthier, while aggressive diplomacy has helped it normalize relations with many of its Arab neighbors – even as different prime ministers have come and gone.
But that all changed in the last few months. At the urging of his coalition partners, Netanyahu tried to push through reforms to the country’s judiciary. These included giving the government more power over Supreme Court appointments, more power to override judicial decisions, and more power to exempt laws from judicial review. This sparked widespread protests, which peaked after Netanyahu announced he fired his Defense Minister, a respected military veteran who opposed the reforms. The turmoil led to the shelving of the legislation.
Now, the government is getting ready to try again. But in the background, protests are building, threatening to tear the country apart once more. And in the polls, Netanyahu’s Likud party is bleeding voters to parties on its left – a trend not seen in nearly a decade. On the financial side, Moody’s has downgraded the country’s credit outlook, and leaders from the country’s critical tech sector have threatened to leave the country.
But why has this issue shaken Israel at every level of society? Why did it finally break the partisan deadlock Israel has been mired in for four years? And why has Netanyahu, after years of political success, stumbled into a situation he can’t talk his way out of?
Why are Israelis so angry about this?
At the outset, it’s important to recognize what these protests are not about. They’re not about the Israel-Palestine conflict or how to handle it (at least directly). On that issue, Israeli politics has reached a consensus. Even Netanyahu’s opposition leaders have often taken a hardline stance on issues like settlements and negotiations with Palestinian leadership.
Protesters are instead motivated by three main things: democracy, religion, and rights.
One of the biggest reasons why the judicial reform sparked so much backlash was because of fear for what it might mean for democracy. Netanyahu, over his years in office, has gained a reputation as a politician who’s willing to do anything to stay in power. Many protesters fear that if the government weakens the Supreme Court, it will pass laws to entrench itself in power.
This fear is especially evident given statements from leaders like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Belazlel Smotrich, two ministers in Netanyahu’s government. Smotrich has called for stripping Israeli Arabs (who mostly vote against Netanyahu) of citizenship. Ben-Gvir has argued for forcibly deporting Israelis who are “disloyal” – identifying, by name, which opposition lawmakers he would deport first.
All this has led to fears that Netanyahu will try to mimic autocratic leaders around the world. One example is Victor Orban, who clamped down on opposition forces and changed electoral rules after winning an election, making it very hard for him to ever lose. The opposition worries Netanyahu will make Israel into a “hybrid regime,” where elections are held but they are not truly free and fair.
His supporters counter that the reforms only mimic other countries where the legislature has more power than the courts. They point to the UK and Canada as examples of stable, healthy democracies with this arrangement. And it is true that legislative supremacy, with only weak judicial review, is the norm across most developed democracies.
But these talking points have failed to sway opponents. For one, Israel’s government contains many illiberal elements, including ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir. And in general, democracies usually have non-democratic checks that make it impossible for the majority to entrench its own power.
Another factor driving the protests is a fear of how the government will use its new power to reshape Israeli society. Right now, Israel is a broadly secular state that embraces liberal attitudes towards morality and culture. It has a large LGBT community, permissive abortion laws, and largely secular business and media institutions.
But much of Netanyahu’s coalition seeks to alter that arrangement. Some have pushed for bills that would weaken the political power of secular Jews to the advantage of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Others have called for changes to secular society that reflect Ultra-Orthodox religious rules. These include more gender segregated beaches, more courts that use Halakha (Jewish religious law), and more government benefits for Haredi men who study Torah as their full-time job.
Many protesters are worried that these elements of the coalition would push to transform Israel into a much more religious state—one where religious Jews retain far more government privileges than secular ones, and LGBT rights are rolled back. Statements from Haredi politicians that Israel should follow formal Jewish religious law have amplified these fears.
The last fear driving the protests has to do with the treatment of ethnic minorities. Protesters are worried that some members of the coalition want to use their newfound power to treat Arab citizens in a way that is not compatible with a democratic state.
Past statements from members of the government have stoked these fears. For example, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in 2017 that he would present Israeli Arabs with three options:
- 1) Live as “residents” that “according to the Halacha. . . should always be a little inferior”
- 2) Leave the country
- 3) Face the IDF.
When asked if his plan involved killing women and children, he responded “in war as in war.” Smotrich has also called for segregating hospitals to separate Jews and Arabs, and in 2022, he called for banning Arab political parties.
Similarly, after an IDF raid in the West Bank resulted in the death of nine Palestinians, a junior ally of Smotrich tweeted“keep killing them.” Another called for more “collective punishment” of Palestinian villages. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of Police and co-partisan of Smotrich, used to hang a picture of Baruch Goldstein in his home. Goldstein committed a mass shooting at a mosque in 1994, killing 29 people.
Why are the protests so big? Didn’t Netanyahu win the last election?
Netanyahu’s coalition did win the last election, but the story on this judicial reform is more complicated. His coalition actually lost the popular vote by about 1% to the opposition. But it won a majority thanks to left-wing infighting that ensured two small opposition parties fell below the electoral threshold needed to enter the Knesset.
And on top of that, it’s likely that many Likud voters oppose the reform efforts. Recent polling shows Netanyahu bleeding secular voters to other Jewish parties – this time on his left. Ever since he came back to power in 2009, Likud, when it has lost voters, has largely only lost them to parties on its right flank. Throughout that time, secular Jewish parties to its left have shrunk, failing to win a majority of seats in every election since 2006. Years of decline left them with only 46/120 seats in 2022 — the lowest since 2003 and the second-lowest ever. But their resurgence suggests many of the voters Likud has converted over the last twenty years are having second thoughts.
The way the reform efforts have exacerbated Israel’s secular-religious divide has likely caused this backlash. More religious parties have made the reforms a priority, and Netanyahu likely underestimated secular Israelis’ dislike for the religious political agenda. The financial and military benefits granted to the country’s Ultra-Orthodox are deeply unpopular. Even Naftali Bennet, the Prime Minister from 2021-22, and the first to wear a kippah, denounced the Ultra-Orthodox as drains on the public treasury. Ultra-Orthodox population growth and their exemption from military service has led even conservative Israelis to view them as a selfish group holding the whole country back.
A government reliant on the Ultra-Orthodox
The Ultra-Orthodox’s insularity has helped fuel the protests in another way. At their peak, the protests called on the major pillars of Israeli society to use their influence. Business and labor joined forces for a general strike. Universities shut down. Even the military spoke out against the reforms. Ultra-Orthodox parties make up almost 1/3 of Netanyahu’s government. But their voters have low rates of workforce participation, rarely receive a university education, and almost never join the military. As a result, the major institutions of Israeli society are highly secularized and dominated by forces that do not support the reforms.
And this disparity goes beyond the Ultra-Orthodox. The Religious Zionist Party, for example, forms another 1/4 of the government. Its voters are mostly settlers in the West Bank, Religious Zionists, and religious voters on the economic margins of society. These groups, while they participate in secular society, lack influence in larger Israeli institutions. Even Likud, with its mostly secular voter base, relies on middle and working-class secular voters in Israel’s mid-sized cities. Another group that lacks sway in the wealthy and powerful parts of Israeli society.
Compounding issues is that government voters are dispersed in their geography. Many live in West Bank settlements, insular Ultra-Orthodox communities, or geographically isolated cities in Southern Israel. So, they cannot stage mass protests like opposition voters, who are concentrated in Tel Aviv and its immediate suburbs, can.
As a result, while the government holds political power, the opposition has leverage over Israel’s non-governmental institutions. And during the last round of protests, they were willing to use that leverage to bring society to halt.
American Jewish opposition
And these divides in Israel are also dividing Netanyahu from some of Israel’s most important foreign supporters: American Jews. Even American Jews with staunchly pro-Israel views – Bari Weiss, Michael Bloomberg, Alan Dershowitz, and David Friedman (Trump’s Orthodox ambassador to Israel) – have spoken out against all or most of the proposed reforms.
Why? Because many of the concerns driving the protestors also drive a wedge between American Jews and Netanyahu’s government. American Jews are highly secular group, long assimilated into a non-Jewish society. Many view Israel favorably, because they view it as a place where people like them have real political and cultural power. A place that reflects their social and cultural views – and one that’s a liberal democracy to boot.
But what if that changes? What if Israel moves to become a much more religious country, or if it moves to privilege religious Jews over secular ones? What if it embraces socially conservative policy that many American Jews disagree with, or if it loses much of its democratic character? Then American Jews might have a much harder time seeing themselves reflected in Israel. These reforms raise the possibility that Israel will change – change in a way that rejects American Jews’ and their worldview.
When prominent American Jews oppose the reforms, it ratchets up the pressure on Netanyahu. It signals that even those that have backed him through countless condemnations and conflicts might be wavering. And if that’s true, then it might make the reforms seem like an existential threat to Israel’s international support.
Netanyahu has had a long political career full of immense successes. He’s pushed Israeli politics to the right and constantly proved his doubters wrong. But the judicial reform has landed him in a political minefield he hasn’t found his way out of. His proposals have driven a wedge between himself and some of Likud’s most important voters. And they’ve created an opposition that, when united, wields immense power in important Israeli institutions. As he gears up to try to pass his reforms again, his efforts may unite secular Jews inside and outside Israel. If they do, then the protests may cause the country to boil over yet again.