How this protest movement is bringing Netanyahu to his knees

A movement that started out against the government's judicial coup has morphed into a successful uprising. Yet questions still loom about what this moment portends for Israeli politics, and above all for Palestinians.

The word “unprecedented” no longer accurately captures the magnitude of recent developments in Israel. No matter what happens next, we are witnessing history in the making. Never before have Israelis risen up in such numbers with such commitment against their own government — to the point that they have effectively brought it to its knees. At the time of writing, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trapped between the option of halting his plan to neuter the judiciary, putting the survival of the most far-right coalition, and his own political career, at risk — and the option of allowing the country to slip further into chaos, a constitutional crisis, and perhaps even civil war.

The protest movement against the overhaul began in January with fairly large weekly demonstrations in central Tel Aviv, which then spread into mass protests in dozens of cities and towns throughout the country, in addition to weekly “days of disruption,” which included demonstrators blocking main highways, trains, the country’s only international airport and sea ports, and more. Then came petitions by academics, the high-tech, legal and finance sectors, calls for divestment, and the considerable weakening of the shekel. Then came thousands of soldiers — particularly from elite intelligence units and the Air Force — announcing their collective refusal to serve and threatening the stability of the army. Their refusal has plunged Israel’s security establishment into a frenzy and de facto support for the protests.

The wave of refusals led hawkish Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who as a general in the Israeli army was responsible for the deaths of close to 1,400 Palestinians during Israel’s war on Gaza in 2008-09, to call for an immediate halt to the overhaul. Netanyahu’s prompt dismissal of Gallant was the last straw, pushing the most powerful players, including large corporations, unions, universities, small businesses, and Israeli municipalities, into the game — essentially bringing the country to a complete standstill on Monday.

The overwhelming opposition to the overhaul from nearly all corners of Israeli society broke Netanyahu, reportedly driving him to freeze the so-called reforms in exchange for allowing extreme-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to form his own national militia. Many right-wing supporters of Netanyahu in the media and within his own Likud party have announced a counter-protest, threatening violence against the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who are now camping out on Israel’s main highways for hours every day. There is little doubt the right’s reaction will bring about violence that may spiral into a larger, bloodier conflict. Following the announcement, Netanyahu himself started calling on his supporters to protest this evening, despite reports suggesting he plans to halt the reform.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a cabinet meeting, Jerusalem, March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/GPO)

The question now is: where is this all heading? What does this all mean for the future of Israeli politics? And perhaps most importantly, what could it spell for Palestinians?

Three scenarios

To answer those questions, we must first recognize the changing nature of the protest movement, which started out with a very narrow message against the judicial overhaul with some vague references to “democracy” peppered in. But as the movement grew, it became apparent that the demonstrators needed to put forth a positive vision, both in order to rally people and in order to ensure that a victory would not simply spell a delay in the far right’s plans, but would alter the nature and foundations of the Israeli regime, so as to prevent such threats to liberal institutions from ever repeating.

That has led demonstrators, the opposition, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog to begin talking about the need for a constitution that would enshrine equality under the law. On Sunday night, as tens of thousands of people rallied on Tel Aviv’s main highway, they chanted repeatedly: “Without equality, we’ll burn down Ayalon,” referring to the central highway that bisects the city. And burn they did, setting up barricades and lighting bonfires that required nine hours to remove. These calls for equality are unprecedented in Israeli history — even though they do not explicitly reference Palestinians, and it’s not clear that all of the protesters sounding that call even understand its implications.

A police water cannon targets protesters on the Ayalon highway, Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after he called to pause the government's planned judicial overhaul, March 26, 2023. (Oren Ziv)
A police water cannon targets protesters on the Ayalon highway, Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, after he called to pause the government’s planned judicial overhaul, March 26, 2023. (Oren Ziv)

And not everyone is joining the call for equality. Some of the major opposition parties and other players now joining the protests are quite content to settle for the scrapping of the judicial reforms and a return of the status quo. In one scenario, Netanyahu gives up on his reforms and secures some more time in power — a scenario that is unlikely to offer the country much stability, since far-right parties, who are wholly committed to the judicial coup, might leave the government, causing it to collapse. Meanwhile, the protest movement is likely to keep up the fight for a constitution, or at the very least another round of elections.

A far more likely scenario is one in which the center and the right form a renewed alliance, possibly without Netanyahu, which will try to stabilize the country, its security apparatus, economy and international standing. Such a government would opt to sustain apartheid as a central pillar of Israel’s raison d’être, while at the same time putting in place mechanisms to defend the independence of the judiciary and free speech for Jewish citizens alone. To the protestors on the left, the new government will likely say that “now is not the time” to bring up “painful” and “divisive” issues such as the occupation and Jewish supremacy. Unfortunately, such a stance is likely to enjoy widespread support among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators on the streets, many of whom have a history of serving the occupation in the army or of profiting from it through industries such as security, surveillance, high-tech, and real estate. This scenario could put an end to the uprising.

Anti-apartheid protesters take part in the weekly protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
Anti-apartheid protesters take part in the weekly protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, Tel Aviv, February 11, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

And a third scenario is that Netanyahu doubles down on the reforms, perpetuating the current unrest.

The second scenario is by many accounts the expected outcome, and it is precisely why the vast majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel have not joined this protest movement en masse from its onset. Protest leaders have gone out of their way to show just how Zionist this movement is: buying hundreds of thousands of Israeli flags in order to drown out the few Palestinian flags carried by a small number of protesters; singing the national anthem at every rally; highlighting speakers’ military backgrounds; and using militaristic iconography in many of their designs. They have also mostly prevented the few Palestinians who were invited to speak at rallies from talking about the occupation, while Jewish opposition leaders have held press conferences that deliberately excluded Palestinian opposition leaders. It’s no wonder, then, that it was Gallant’s firing, and the sense that Netanyahu is working against national security, that turned the tide against him.

A new course?

The “democracy” at the subject of the protests, then, is an entirely internal-Jewish conception of the term. It is a tragic and infuriating reflection of just how deeply Jewish supremacy runs in the veins of Israeli politics, how essential it is as an organizing principle and to the fabric of the country.

Yet there are three reasons why this current moment could also set us on a new course.

Economically, Israel relies on international trade and investment, and international capital’s faith in Israel’s stability has been broken. It is possible that restoring this faith would require more than just a “sane” government and a new constitution that sustains the status quo, and that there will be some demand for a shift in Israeli apartheid policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians, in the form of equality for all citizens and negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. For that to happen, there needs to be more international pressure holding Israel to account for its crimes against Palestinians.

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plans outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 27, 2023.(Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans outside the Knesset, Jerusalem, March 27, 2023.(Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Politically, if Netanyahu insists on holding on to power, and the center continues to boycott any partnership with him, the latter will be dependent on the vote of Palestinian citizens and their parties in order to form a coalition alternative to the far right. Coupled with growing hatred toward the settlement movement amongst the protestors — particularly following the Huwara pogrom — and the economy’s need to integrate Palestinian citizens into the advanced services, high-tech and other sectors of the workforce that require higher levels of education and integration, the center may have to join together with Palestinian parties in support of equality and an end to the occupation and the siege on Gaza.

Morally, questions about the inherent tension between the state’s definitions as both “Jewish” and “democratic” are popping up like never before, as are questions about the true meaning of the word “equality” — the latest rallying cry on the streets. Over the past two months we have seen demonstrators change their attitudes toward the “anti-apartheid bloc,” from outright hostility and violence, to one of acceptance, with thousands adopting the bloc’s slogan of “democracy for all from the river to the sea.” At the very least, this could lead those who became radicalized over these past weeks to join the anti-apartheid movement. It may just be that Netanyahu’s latest move of promising Ben Gvir his own private militia, which will likely target Palestinians first and anti-government protesters after them, will also incentivize the opposition to connect the dots and ally with Palestinians.

Hopefully, those who have fought hardest under the banner of democracy and equality may actually end up adopting those ideas to their fullest. And that could hold some considerable promise for our future here.

A version of this article was also published in The Nation. Read it here.