The latest escalation of protests in Israel has coincided with my arrival in Tel Aviv for the exchange program. The wave of unrest has no precedents in Israel’s history and represents a dramatic turning point for the country. Having participated firsthand in the strikes I try to profile demonstrators while giving a sense of why they are furious at their prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli flags wave all around Tel Aviv but people have nothing to celebrate. Amid the current constitutional crisis, the national flag has come to symbolize that the legitimacy of the executive government must rest on the will of the people. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken this ideal to the streets to persuade prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get off his high horse.
Around this time last year, Israel was entering a period of heightened tensions extensively correlated to the overlapping of Ramadan and Passover, two heart-felt events respectively in the Muslim and Jewish calendars. While for the near-to-absolute majority of Muslims Ramadan is viewed as an occasion for prayer and self-reflection, according to terrorist groups it is seen as the most favorable time to conduct the Jihad since God listened to the prayers of its followers.
In the coming weeks tensions that intrinsically characterize the Israeli and Palestinian territories alike will likely escalate, as it was the case last year. Crucially, things this time around may play out very differently as Netanyahu has deliberately led his country into a period of heightened political tensions.
Israel is going through an unprecedented constitutional crisis triggered by a furiously divisive plan to overhaul the independency of the Supreme Court. If Netanyahu’s bill was to come into law his coalition of far right and ultra-orthodox parties would immediately obtain full discretion to reject any Supreme Court’s ruling that constitutes an obstacle to their political agenda by a simple majority vote in the Knesset, Israel’s only legislative chamber. Moreover, Netanyahu who faces corruption charges will also be able to influence the appointment of judges as it would become o competence of the legislature.
The country would go from having a Supreme Court with historically disproportionate powers over the Knesset to a powerless one. Indeed, the law would effectively render any constitutionality check on new laws void. Fortunately, the plan is being met with outstanding and increasing resistance. Secular-liberal Israelis see the bill as a threat to the core functioning of democracy. In economic centers such as Tel Aviv they fret about what the government could do with unchecked powers and have flooded the streets. Others angrily shout that they will not live in a dictatorship.
Despite endemic political cleavages that are enshrined in the fragmented composition of the Knesset, Netanyahu’s bill has managed to rally together a historically divided opposition against his government. The leader of the opposition Yair Lapid warns Israel “has never been closer to falling apart”. The bill has become explosively divisive, but the majority coalition still retains a bulk of loyal supporters among the far right and religious Zionist electorate.
All Israeli universities have joined workers’ unions in nation-wide strikes. Academia has shut down its activities symbolically halting the institution that propels Israel’s economic success. They feel academic freedom is at stake. Soon more students will realize the magnitude of this historical moment. To give a sense, Tel Aviv and Reichman university, which in Israel’s academic landscape resemble Milan’s “La Statale” and Bocconi, have both cancelled all lectures until further notice. Professors and students will gather for debates on Israel’s democratic crisis.
Yoav Gallant in charge of the Ministry of Defense too has opposed to the bill. He warned that it not just democracy, but also Israel’s homeland security is in jeopardy. Absenteeism among military personnel involved in security operations exposes the country to its neighboring foes. Netanyahu’s decision to promptly fire Gallant will not go unnoticed. From this moment onward the international community and especially the United States will be taking a closer look at the events.
Worries about democratic backsliding are well-founded. The turbulence is tangible. Despite a supposedly weak civil society, protests have continued to surge in the past three months. The numbers are destined to spike, and little suggests that the people will necessarily remain as peaceful as they have been so far.
Until now the power relationships of Israel’s democratic institutions have been determined by so-called Basic Laws. They have been approved by the Knesset on a one-to-one basis over the years but only in 1995 have they gained supremacy over ordinary laws. In that year the Supreme Court unilaterally granted itself power to strike down any legislation that contradicts the said Basic Laws. This turn of events has granted greater stability to democracy but has also alienated orthodox factions in the Knesset as the court is seen as a leftist establishment with disproportionate powers.
With his actions Netanyahu has shown he thinks Basic Laws should have the legal standing of any other law, which amounts to bring the country back in decades. Netanyahu still has time to back off and halt the legislative process. Israel desperately needs a unified constitution that neatly delineates the division between the judicial and the legislative power. The escalation of events leading up to the current situation has built momentum for profound changes. For better or worse it will end up marking the country’s political conscience for decades to come.