Could Israel’s Protests Succeed?

This year, news from Israel and Palestine were dominated by two ongoing developments.

The first concerns widespread, persistent protests against the Israeli government’s “judicial overhaul”: a series of bills which, if passed, would significantly weaken the Supreme Court. Protesters have mounted remarkably audacious demonstrations, attended by as many as 500,000 participants – more than any other demonstration since the 2011 “Social Justice” protests.

Another concerns a violent escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israelis – both uniformed and civilian – killed 78 Palestinians since the start of 2023. The Israeli military raided the cities of Jenin and Nablus, killing both militants and bystanders, including children. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers rampaged through the Palestinian town of Huwara, setting vehicles and homes on fire, killing one man. Since the start of the year, Palestinian gunmen killed 15 Israelis – including children – within Israel and in the West Bank.

While these stories are often treated as separate, they are interconnected.

Elections, Netanyahu and his Trial

To international observers, Israel seems to be caught in a constant election cycle. Indeed, no less than five election rounds were held between 2019-2022 alone. Why?

Israel has a parliamentary system with a unicameral legislature – the Knesset. The electoral system is highly fragmented and highly proportional: today, ten different parties and lists are represented. No party has ever secured a 61-seat majority. Traditionally, coalition- rather than minority-governments are formed.

Benjamin Netanyahu, chairman of the Revisionist (read: nationalist, conservative, and economically liberal) Likud party, served his first term as Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999. Returning to power in 2009, he held on to the PM’s office through two general elections, held in 2013 and 2015. In 2019, he became the country’s longest-serving PM. Israel does not have term limits.

That year marked the beginning of Israel’s infamous political crisis. Fed up with Netanyahu, who was, by then, under police investigation for corruption, large portions of the Israeli public demanded his ouster. The first of five elections, in April 2019, already saw the political landscape split into pro- and anti-Netanyahu axes, which superseded traditional left-right divides.

In November 2019, Netanyahu was indicted for breach of trust, accepting bribes, and fraud. The ensuing trial, which began in May of 2020, deepened the crisis. While the ideological, religious Right remained loyal, softer right-wing elements defected to the anti-Netanyahu camp. The 2020, 2021, and 2022 elections were widely seen as plebiscites on his fitness for office, with the opposition eventually managing to cobble together a diverse coalition government comprising ultra-nationalists, an Islamist party, and liberals. Unsurprisingly, this fragile alliance crumbled in 2022 due to internal disagreements. Netanyahu returned to power last December, helming Israel’s most right-wing government to date.

The Breadth of Israeli Consensus

While it might seem that Israel is being pulled apart by centrifugal forces, a closer look reveals remarkably strong political and ideological bonds. Though Israelis are split on many issues, including Netanyahu, they share strong political narratives about national identity, security, regional and international affairs.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Israel had a thriving “Peace Camp”. It promoted a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and supported Palestinian demands for sovereignty. Members of this camp described themselves as Zionist patriots, to be sure, but their vision prioritized peace over territory.

This camp has dwindled significantly since the Second Intifada, which took the lives of hundreds of Israeli and thousands of Palestinian civilians. Many of its members turned rightward, giving rise to a new, large Centre camp which maintains social and economic liberalism, on the one hand, but is also markedly militaristic and nationalist. Scholar Rafaella Del Sarto argues that, since the second Intifada, a “Neo-Zionist” consensus emerged within Israel, characterised, by a zero-sum outlook regarding security and regional politics, a pervasive sense of being surrounded by enemies (a “villa” in a hostile “jungle”), and the conviction that peace with the Palestinians is unattainable. Other scholars speak of an emergent “Neo-Zionist” hegemony.

Analysis of Israeli politics should start here; with the recognition that the Israeli Left, today, is a marginal political minority. While there is significant political contestation among the Jewish-Israeli majority, it occurs within narrow ideological boundaries. Among large segments of this majority, “the Left”, and Israel’s Palestinian politicians, are considered far less legitimate than Netanyahu.

Palestinians Here

During the 2019-2022 crisis, Palestinian parties – representing 20% of Israel’s population – repeatedly expressed their desire to form an alternative coalition with the Centre-Left. They made gestures toward the Centre by moderating their stances, de-prioritising – but not completely abandoning – their commitments to combat ethnic and national inequality.

Still, these positions proved too contentious for the Israeli opposition, which rejected Palestinian politicians on multiple occasions – at the cost of continued deadlock and repeated, costly election cycles.

Ahead of the 2021 elections, one of the Palestinian parties – the Islamist, United Arab List party – changed course. Positioning itself as an apolitical “kingmaker”, the United Arab List completely omitted references to its Palestinian identity, the Occupation, or ethnic inequality from its campaign. Instead, it focused on increasing Palestinian localities’ budgets. Its leader, Mansour Abbas, stated his willingness to partner with any political actor, including Netanyahu. It was ultimately included in the short-lived, alternative government of 2021-2022.

Today, with Netanyahu back in power, mainstream politicians – including opposition leaders – continue to exclude Israel’s Palestinian politicians. Meanwhile, Palestinian citizens of Israel are glaringly absent from anti-government demonstrations. These dynamics of exclusion and political participation play out in an oft-neglected, but integral sphere of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; within Israel proper.

Palestinians There

Unlike Israel’s Palestinian citizens, those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, under military occupation, have no political rights.

The Occupation will turn 60 in 2027. Soon, there will be no one left in the Territories – home to 5 million Palestinians – who had ever held a citizenship, voted, or had the ability to organise politically. Meanwhile, Palestinians continue to face military and settler violence on a daily basis. With the Peace Process going nowhere fast, there is no end in sight.

Experts (including Israeli military officials) and pundits routinely warn that violent resistance is on the brink of eruption in the Territories. The recent escalation is nothing more than a fulfilment of these predictions. New, armed Palestinians groups are forming, but that was predictable. Controlling a disenfranchised population breeds resistance.

Similarly, though the mode of violence inflicted on Palestinians remains unchanged, its extent and scale have increased. While clashes between Israeli military forces and Palestinian militias are not unheard of, the recent, large-scale confrontations in cities like Jenin and Nablus – which cost the lives of multiple, unarmed bystanders – are worrying. Similarly, while Israeli settlers frequently attack Palestinians, the February 26 attack on the Palestinian town of Huwara – a full-scale pogrom that lasted several hours – is a worrying development.

The timing leaves little to doubt: Netanyahu’s far-right partners intend to pursue their expansionist agenda swiftly and aggressively. Meanwhile, extremists on the ground are growing more violent, emboldened by government officials’ inflammatory rhetoric.

Possibilities for Change

Thus far, Israeli protesters have framed their grievances through the prism of “regime change” (“hafichah mishtarit”); the fear of losing Israel’s democratic procedures. While this struggle is vital, it cannot succeed without an explicit push for substantive democracy, for all.

The overhaul is not merely driven by Netanyahu’s personal interest to secure a get-out-of-jail card. That is just one part of the bargain he struck with the ultranationalist Right. For the latter, the judicial overhaul serves a variety of goals, such as banning Palestinian parties from participating in elections, expanding settlements, and annexing territories. It is meant to facilitate the exclusion and persectution of LGPTQIA+ individuals, religious minorities, and asylum seekers.

Some protesters from the movement’s mainstream have thus far attempted to represent themselves as an apolitical, “sane center”. This apologetic, middle-of-the-road approach is unlikely to bear fruit.

Others internalised these lessons. Following the pogrom, for example, protesters chanted: “where were you in Huwara?”. And while a small, vocal “anti-occupation block” remains marginalised among demonstrators, its voice is growing louder. Moreover, protesters are increasingly turning to radical tactics of civil disobedience, such as blocking highways, strikes, divestment, and other disruptive measures.

These signs are encouraging. Eleven weeks on, the demonstrations are showing no sign of abating. Still, this is just the beginning. A loud call for substantive, rather than procedural democracy, is needed. The formation of a positive, forceful, inclusive ideological alternative is needed; of a new democratic vision for all between the Jordan and the Sea.