Protests against Israel’s judicial overhaul: A political game-changer?


Even if Israel’s ruling coalition survives its full term, chants of ‘we want democracy’ will forever affect who will lead the Jewish state in the future

On January 4, 2022, when Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the principles of the judicial reform that the government would impose, both he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no inkling that it would be a windfall for the opposition bloc – which had been seemingly lost in the desert for over 20 years.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Israeli politics were ideologically divided between two camps: The left, in favor of negotiations with the Palestinian side on returning to, more or less, the pre-1967 borders; and the right, which was against such negotiations. But in 1992, after Yitzhak Rabin returned to power in a crushing electoral victory over the right, he and his foreign minister Shimon Peres pushed for the signing of the Oslo Accords.

The result: Polarization between the left and right camps intensified and peaked with the assassination of Rabin in November 1995 by an extreme right-winger who opposed the accords – which sparked the peace process aimed at fulfilling the “right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.”

Successive elections saw power change hands between sides. Netanyahu defeated Peres in 1996 in the closest election in the Jewish state’s history, and Ehud Barak decisively beat Netanyahu in 1999. The alternating camps could have continued—and possibly would have—but the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 changed Israeli politics—a change that is still being felt.

Months earlier in July, then-prime minister Barak and then-Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat attended the Camp David summit mediated by then-U.S. president Bill Clinton. The goal was to sign a permanent borders agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, and lay the final foundations to end the conflict.

The summit failed, though, and although the parties agreed to continue dialogue, violence ensued, initiated by Arafat who—in a mistake of historic proportions—thought he could force more Israeli concessions through an armed struggle based on suicide terror attacks.

In October 2000, two Israeli army reservists accidentally entered the West Bank city of Ramallah, where a mob attacked and brutally lynched them. The event was caught on camera and broadcast around the world. One of the terrorists who carried out the murder proudly showed his bloody hands to the cheering crowd and the camera—an image that finally settled the debate between the Israeli right and left.

The majority of the Israeli public realized then that the time for talking was over—it was now time to fight. A few months after the Ramallah murders, then-head of the Likud party Ariel Sharon smashed Barak in elections. The hawkish ideology of the right-bloc won, with clear campaign messages to the voters that lasted for two decades: “The left led Israel to the Oslo disaster” and “The left is a danger to Israel’s security.”

Netanyahu echoed these messages during the 12 years he has been in power, and the left had found itself on the political sidelines, unable to come up with a clear message of its own that would resonate with the public and return it to power.

Erik Marmor/Flash90
Erik Marmor/Flash90Israelis protest in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Even in the short periods of time when politicians who were voted into power with the support of the former left-wing camp of the 1990s – like Ehud Olmert from 2006-2009 and Yair Lapid in 2022 – preferred to present themselves as “centrist” instead of “leftist” – which has become a word no Israeli politician will use to describe themselves.

The center-left public whose voting base is in the coastal progressive city of Tel Aviv has become more apathetic. In coffee shops, discussions don’t revolve around politics or ideology – reflecting the realization that Netanyahu would ultimately rise to power again so it’s a waste of time – and during elections, the impetus is usually with the right-wing voters.

But then came the announcement of the judicial reforms, and something changed.

Chants heard in demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of opposers is also a political call that the Israeli center-left bloc has been searching for in the past two decades – a simple slogan and message that could win the next elections: “We want a democracy, they (the right) want a dictatorship.” Suddenly, the right finds itself with a confused message trying to explain the reform, which has not been an easy task for campaigners. 

Is this a game-changer for the next elections? The Jewish holy text says that “prophecy has been given to the fools,” and despite all the protests and pressure exerted on Netanyahu’s government, the coalition in parliament is stable, has a clear majority, and will not give up easily.

However, even if the ruling government does survive its full term and the parties succeed in reaching a common ground on the proposed judicial reform, the recent demonstrations across Israel are not events that will be easily erased from the public’s memory. And during future elections, the center-left will be able to argue to voters that “if the right wins, it will try again to take over the judicial system,” and therefore, it is rather possible that the chants of “we want democracy” will forever affect who will lead Israel in the future. 

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