An inside look at the recent Israeli protests, the fragility of the Netanyahu government, the potential for a new coalition, and the influence of demographic changes.
Large-scale public protests are, perhaps, the most visceral form of political action. This past week, we witnessed the power of such protests in Israel, as tens of thousands of people took to the streets, successfully pressuring the Netanyahu government to roll back its judicial reforms, at least temporarily.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we delve into the Israeli situation with Nadav Tamir, who joins us from Tel Aviv. Tamir, a former adviser to former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, has served in the Israeli Embassy in Washington and as consul-general in the US. Currently, he is the executive director of J Street Israel and an adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation.
Tamir sheds light on the reasons this event sparked widespread protests and the convergence of various interests opposing the judicial changes, which would increase the power of the majority party in the Israeli parliament (Knesset). He emphasizes that the protest movement focused on domestic policy in Israel, with little influence from other authoritarian incidents worldwide.
Additionally, Tamir discusses the impact of demographic shifts in Israel, particularly the mounting birthrate among the ultra-Orthodox population.
He also outlines the fragility of the Netanyahu government, the extent of public opposition, the long-lasting effects of settler violence, and the potential emergence of a new coalition government.
Whether Netanyahu will honor his commitment to the protesters and whether the protest movement can maintain its momentum remain to be seen.
Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff: Welcome to The WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Large-scale public protest is perhaps the most visceral form of political action. We’ve seen it work during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and with Black Lives Matter. We’ve seen it fail with things like Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the recent protests in Russia. This past week we’ve seen it take hold in Israel in protests against Netanyahu’s plan to take control of the nation’s judiciary. So far the protests have made a difference. We’ll see what the future holds.
But protests of this magnitude usually don’t happen all at once. Often the issues that spark them have been simmering under the surface for a long time. In Israel, it seems that this move to remake the judiciary was simply the gasoline that ignited the kindling that had been burning for some time. Joining me to put all of this in perspective is my guest, Nadav Tamir.
He was an advisor to President Shimon Peres and served in the Israeli embassy in Washington, and as Council General in New England. He’s executive director of J Street Israel, and a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, as well as an advisor for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. He’s also a member of the Steering Committee of the Geneva Initiative. It is my pleasure to welcome Nadav Tamir here to the program. Nadav Tamir, thanks so much for joining us on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Nadav: Thank you for having me, Jeff.
Jeff: Well, it’s a delight to have you here. For those that may not understand, take us back a little bit and talk about what sparked this protest. What was it that Netanyahu wanted to do to change the judiciary that created the current environment?
Nadav: Well, we have to go back even before this last government was created. In the previous Netanyahu government, we had demonstrations pretty frequently around his home in Jerusalem and in different places in Israel because there was a feeling of many Israelis that someone who is corrupted is going to trial on several cases, should not be the prime Minister. And those demonstrations eventually, I think, brought the change in the elections, after which an eclectic government, which we call the change government, came into power. But this government didn’t hold much because there were too many tensions among the members of the coalition.
The new break of demonstrations started after this new government was created. And the coalition agreements are pretty awful. But people didn’t pay attention until the minister of justice declared that he’s going to start everything with what they call a judicial reform, but what is pretty clear is an attempt to weaken dramatically the judicial branch of Israel, mainly the Supreme Court, and the Attorney General, and all the professional legal advisors who are the protectors of law and the democracy of Israel.
And this what’s actually ignited an amazing, amazing movement of so many people who are all connected by their eagerness to keep Israel democracy. Many of them have different ideologies on other things, but the one thing that connects all of them is that they feel that this government is trying to take away the checks and balances and the protection of personal and minority rights in Israel.
Jeff: And this has been brewing for some time. This has not been the first attempt that the Netanyahu government has made to do things that one might consider authoritarian.
Nadav: That’s true. What’s different this time is that there is a convergence of interest of the members of the coalition with the same goal to weaken the judicial branch for different reasons. They’re ultra-Orthodox, they don’t want equality by law because they want their special benefits. They don’t want to serve in the military, they don’t want to study core issues in their curriculum, they don’t want to pay taxes, and they want the state to subsidize their prayers in Yeshivas.
You have the extreme settlers who understand that the Supreme Court will not let them take control of the whole Palestinian territories against international law and to infringe [unintelligible 00:05:41], you have the Jewish supremacists who think that the Supreme Court doesn’t let them make Jews more supreme to Arabs in this country, and others who just want to go after the LGBTQ community, women, everyone who doesn’t think like them.
And this convergence, the glue that put all of them together is the fact that we have a prime minister that is trying to find a way out of his trial and wants to make sure that he controls the legal establishment in order to take him out of the corruption cases. And a party that in many ways is similar to what happened to the Republican party in America, which became a cult personality that they’re doing whatever Netanya wants them to do. So, this convergence of things is behind this much more bold and aggressive move against the legal branch in the Israeli system.
Jeff: To what extent does some of the motivation among all those that turned out for these protests come from looking at what has happened in other places when they see what happened in the US on January 6th, when they see what happened with Trump, when they look at Hungary which is a lot closer, and Victor Orban, to what extent have these movements inspired protestors to make sure that something similar doesn’t happen in Israel?
Nadav: I have to say that most of them for a long time didn’t make the connection. They didn’t see the clear lines of what happened in Hungary, in Poland, Turkey, Russia, and they pretty much were indifferent to everything outside their living in Tel Aviv, the most amazing city in the world, and enjoying the startup nation. They only were awakened when they felt that someone was going after their own rights.
And only now they’re starting to see the connection to other places, and hopefully, at least for me, that they will also start to understand that there are Palestinians in the territories and also Palestinian citizens of Israel, that their rights are infringed, and this liberal awakening will make it clear to them that it’s not enough to protect their own rights because a real liberal is someone who care about rights for everybody and not their own rights. So this awakening, I don’t think it’s because anyone was too interested in what’s happening in the world. It happened when someone touched them, and this brought them to the street.
Jeff: There is much that’s been written about demographic change that’s taking place in Israel. To what extent is that part of this whole equation?
Nadav: Well, it’s clear that the ultra-Orthodox communities are growing because they have a birth rate that is more than any other population in the world, I think. And unlike the Arab sector that used to also have big families, but the Arab sector with education and with more women out of the workforce, it’s actually changing. But for the Orthodox, for ideological reasons, they still want to keep big families, and they enjoy the subsidies and benefits from the state. Still, I think we’re far away from a situation where the liberals will be just a small minority in Israel. There is still a very large silent majority that for too long was not very ideological, and the ideology was always on the other side. Especially with the settlers and with the ultra-Orthodox parties that knew how to play politics to their advantage. And the change now, and this is the optimistic part of the story, is this amazing awakening which also reclaimed the national symbols, the flag, the national anthem. After many years, those symbols were used by the right-wingers who said that the liberals are not really patriotic because they are part of the cosmopolitan global world who wants democracy and liberal democracy like other places. While then, the more ideological people cared much more about a Jewish state than a democracy. So, this awakening, I think, is what’s new here.
And I think we’re still far from the doom day where the demography will make it impossible for the liberals to win this. One thing that is still very much missing in order to make the liberal camp much stronger is that the Arab citizens of Israel, the Palestinians citizens of Israel, still don’t see themselves as part of those demonstration, even though they are the first who are going to be hurt by this government because they feel that a lot of the demonstrations are nationalistic and led by a lot of military jargon and stuff like that. And this is something that has to be changed because in order for the liberals to win in Israel, we need a partnership of Arabs and Jews.
Nadav: And to what extent will this awakening bring up other issues beyond this judicial issue that’s being debated at the moment?
Jeff: So, this is the big question, how to make the connection. You’re starting to see it. You’re starting to see, for example, after we had this Pogrom in Hawara where settler violence tried to really go after the Palestinians there. In the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, people told the police, “Where have you been in Hawara?” And people are starting to make the connection that actually out of the settlement project came those extremists like our Minister of Finance, Smotrich, and the Minister of National Security, Ben-Gvir, who grew up in the outlaw environment in the West Bank.
I think people are starting to make this connection, but they’re still very careful because they think that if they speak about other issues, they will lose some of the soft rights [unintelligible 00:12:58] them in the demonstrations.
Nadav: Talk a little bit about how you see this playing out. There’s been a backing down, at least for the moment, by the Netanyahu government, but there’s also a sense that this isn’t going to last.
Jeff: Yes, I think Netanya is between two powers. One of them, he actually understands the damage to Israel’s economy, the damage to Israel foreign affairs, but he is in a survival mode. So, he’s trying to find ways to keep his coalition alive and to keep the efforts to go after the judicial branch while still not risking too much and while understanding that the street is against him. So, he came with this attempt to freeze the legislation. But nobody believes Netanyahu. We had so many cases in history where he said things, and it was quite clear that he didn’t really mean it. So, the approach of the opposition, okay, we need to talk.
We need to look for a way to– We have to cooperate with any– Especially with the President’s offer to mediate this. But people are very skeptical, and people don’t believe that Netanyahu really means it. And even if he means it, his partners in the coalition will not let him really compromise. So, in many ways, we might go back to where we were before after the Passover, recess in the Knesset, and after this country go to family events and stuff like that.
I think that we might reach a constitutional crisis afterwards because if the legislation goes on, we will reach a situation where the Supreme Court and the Attorney General will be on one side of the issue and the government will be on the other side. And then the military, the police, the Shabbat, Mossad, economy, everybody will have to decide what side they are on.
And I believe that the most influential sectors of Israeli society will be with the law and not with the government. And that might break the Likud Party because there are people in the Likud Party that understand that this direction is breaking them. And they also see in the service, in polls that there’s not support even among Likud voters for this Judicial coup.
Nadav: Given that the protests that we saw this past week by freezing this process right now has the energy gone out of those protest movements and the protesters? Can they come together again with the same force that we saw?
Jeff: So, that’s a question that nobody knows because there’s a lot of– When the Prime Minister decided to fire the Defense Minister Galland because he called to stop the legislation and go into dialog, people went to the streets, and it wasn’t really organized. So, there’s a lot of authentic energy there, and many people who feel that they want to fight this until they have assurances that the democracy is kept.
On the other hand, it’s true that people are getting tired, and it’s hard to keep that level of energy for so long. So, it’s very hard to say. My guess is that if the negotiations will lead to a block and to not lead to any compromise, then people will go back to the streets. That’s my guess. And we will keep on seeing the demonstrations grow. But if Netanyahu will be able to make a split within the other camp, within the liberal camp, some people say, “No, we have to take the compromise.” Some people say, “No, we can’t.” That might break the back of the demonstrators.
Nadav: Can another government even be formed under those circumstances? Or do you get back to something that was not unlike the change government pre-Netanyahu that couldn’t hold together?
Jeff: Well, theoretically, the Knesset could still vote for someone else if Netanyahu goes for a plea bargain or whatever. But I don’t think that that can happen. If Netanyahu goes, then I think there will be new elections because this whole structure was built around Netanyahu, and he is the glue for this coalition. And eventually, they will lose their majority in the Knesset, and then we will have to go to elections.
Nadav: But does that create a situation where nobody gets enough votes and the government can’t hold as we’ve seen previously?
Jeff: Well, according to the recent polls, the opposition will be able to form a government. Of course, polls tell you only what’s happening now. You don’t know what’s going to change. But it seems that this feeling on the right that Netanyahu is the only leader and that he’s a big asset for them is starting to melt. And more and more people in Likud understand that maybe Netanyahu with these corruption cases, doesn’t care about the country, doesn’t care about the party, and it’s all about him.
So, I think that might create a situation where the anti-Netanyahu camp will be able to form a government just like they did with the change government but maybe even bigger. In the last polls that we saw, the party of Gants is growing to the same size as Likud, which is a game changer.
Nadav: And finally, is there young leadership coming up? Are you seeing new leaders beginning to emerge there?
Jeff: Well, we have some faces of the demonstrations. One of them became an icon, especially when the picture stocked by the police was all over the place. Her name is Shikma Bresler, and she’s a Physicist from the Weizmann Institute who started the black slag demonstration in the previous round. And now she’s the main face of the demonstration. But there is a headquarter with many organizations with some funding from the high tech, with a lot of people from different units in the IDF who are usually– it’s very adhesive groups that they demonstrate together. So, I don’t know if we’re talking about leadership that will get into politics, and we’ll have a new leadership in politics. And it’s also one of the attempts of the demonstration not to have just one person because then it’s very easy to find skeletons in their cupboard. And it’s better to keep it without someone that you could just go after and kill the whole thing. So, I can’t really say what will come out of it in terms of leadership. We do see more young people on the streets than we’ve seen in the beginning. In the first place, it was more old people and pensioners who could spend the time, but now the young people are all energized as well.
Jeff: Nadav Tamir, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Nadav: Thank you so much for having me. Let’s all work to keep our democracy.
Jeff: Thank you so much. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.