Welcome back to Undertones, this week we are delving into the political narratives shaking Israel. I am your newsletter writer, Melissa Vida, working with the Civic Media Observatory team and our researcher, who will remain anonymous under the fictitious name “Anna”.
Israel has been often branded as the only democracy in the Middle East, but that idea is crumbling fast, Anna says. Netanyahu’s new government – a coalition with the country’s religious far-right – is attempting to limit the Supreme Court’s powers, sparking protests throughout the country since January 2023.
For demonstrators, these reforms herald the end of democracy in Israel. They are asking for “Bibi” (how Benjamin Netanyahu is informally called) to scrap the changes and resign. Israel’s checks and balances are already relatively weak, as the country has no formal constitution and the government controls a majority of the one-chamber parliament, the Knesset.
The rise of the far-right in Israel
Israel’s current government is the most far-right and religious coalition the country has seen since its inception 75 years ago. The coalition was formed after elections were held in November 2022, following years of unstable governments and snap elections. Benjamin Netanyahu’s party – Likud – shares the table with five other conservative and Jewish supremacist parties: United Torah Judaism, Shas, Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam.
The judicial reform involves multiple changes. In July, the government passed a bill that limits the courts’ authority to overturn government decisions labeled as “extremely unreasonable.” Additionally, they plan to give politicians more influence when appointing Supreme Court judges and grant ministers the ability to disregard legal advice, among other changes.
Yet judicial reforms are not happening in a vacuum. This year, West Bank affairs were transferred from military to civilian rule, deemed a de jure annexation. The government pushed for more Israeli settlements, sought to give more power to religious courts and legislation, and created a new paramilitary National Guard under the direct control of the Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Protestor’s side: “The current government of Israel is turning the country into a dictatorship”
Critics of the judicial reform are diverse among the Jewish population. The political opposition (such as the parties Yisrael Beiteinu and Yesh Atid) opposes it, but also top officials in Israel’s army, reservists, former chief justices, Israeli Nobel prize winners, and business leaders, especially from the valuable tech industry.
Protestors on the streets span all generations throughout the country, albeit Tel Aviv is a major hotspot. They have been met with police water cannons and arrests. A strong sub-narrative among protestors is, ”We will protest until Netanyahu stops the judicial reform.”
These protests shed light on the divide between religious and secularist movements in Israeli Jewish society. The new government plans to increase the budget and presence of conservative Jewish life in the country, as well as settlements on disputed land. An example of this tension is when people recently protested a newly minted tramline that would not work from Friday to Saturday in honor of Shabbat, deeming it discriminatory for a large portion of the population.
Protestors’ key message is patriotic in nature – they love Israel and seek to defend it from Netanyahu’s “coup” against democratic institutions. As self-described “Zionist citizen” youth activist Omri Ronen said in a public speech: “We received a country on a silver platter from the founding generation and now it is our duty to fulfill our role.”
In July, tens of thousands of demonstrators trekked for five days from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the summer heat, trying to stop the government from passing the first set of reforms. It was the most striking show of discontent among the Israeli population, but the government remained unresponsive.
How these narratives show up online
Ksenia Svetlova, a famous Israeli and Russian-speaking journalist with liberal views, used the march as an opportunity to showcase the depth of solidarity among Israelis.
She also pointed out the disinformation circulating online about the protestors: they are not “a few hundred pensioners” or brainwashed zombies who obey “the Illuminati” or “Lizard Man”, she claims.
See the full analysis of this item here.
What about Palestinian voices?
From the Palestinian perspective, Israeli democracy has never truly existed. Amnesty International has labeled Israel an ‘apartheid’ state, where Palestinians face systemic discrimination and deprivation of rights.
A common critique of the Israeli protest movement and media coverage is their frequent neglect of Israeli encroachment into native Palestinian territories, with some arguing that genuine democracy in Israel cannot coexist with ongoing occupation.
Arab citizens within Israel, constituting approximately 20 percent of the population, have largely refrained from joining the protests.
According to Palestinian lawyer and activist Raja Shehadeh, the absence of law enforcement and the oppression in the occupied territories erode the Israeli way of life and the rule of law. The snake might be biting its own tail.
“I think that Israelis, by and large, aren’t aware that they can’t have democracy in Israel while there is no democracy for the millions of Palestinians they are controlling in the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” Shehadeh told The New Yorker.
Netanyahu's ultra-Zionist government has seen increased settler violence and displacements, and the proposed judicial reform is concerning for Palestinians, as a weakened Supreme Court reduces their ability to seek legal recourse.
Government’s side: “Those who protest against Netanyahu's government are enemies of the state”
Politicians who were once on the fringes are now leading Netanyahu's government, with figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir wielding significant political influence. Ben-Gvir has a criminal record that includes convictions for inciting racism against Palestinians and links to the outlawed Kach party, which espoused an extremist religious Zionist ideology.
In 2022 he was designated as the Minister of National Security and entrusted with oversight of Israel's Border Police division in the West Bank, which is under occupation.
The coalition’s argument in support of the judicial reform is that they perceive the courts as having a “left-leaning and elitist bias” that prioritizes minority rights over those of the State of Israel. However, some surmise that limiting the power of the courts is a convenient way for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to evade corruption charges.
If Netanyahu opposes the desires of his coalition, it could result in the government’s collapse, potentially triggering yet another snap election. Members of the government have labeled protestors “terrorists” intending to destabilize the nation and who deserve severe punishments.
A strong sub-narrative emerged when key components of Israel’s powerful army declared not reporting for duty if the reforms passed – that “people protesting in Israel are instigating a coup.” Thousands of reservists (the pool of soldiers who reinforce the army in times of need) and air force personnel have been critical of the reforms. This weakens Israel’s strong military.
Influential government members also peddle the narrative that these protests are inauthentic and sponsored “by the enemies of Israel.” These “enemies” can refer to Islamic countries (Iran) and Islamic groups (Hezbollah), but sometimes also invoke the United States, the European Union, and any other “antisemitic group.”
How these narratives show up online
In Israel, most media support the protests. The day after the government passed the first set of judicial reforms, on July 25, newspapers published black front covers in sign of mourning.
Minister of National Security Ben-Gvir republished an image of these on Facebook, claiming that the black pages are proof of foreign meddling.
His caption reads: “This is not what a ‘popular protest’ looks like,” and that that the front pages were “bought by foreign entities who are running a campaign to destroy the country.”
The comment section supports him and agrees to never buy those newspapers again, pledging to only watch “Channel 14” which backs the far-right. These narratives trickle down to a base of hardline supporters.
See the full analysis of this item here.
As of writing, the Supreme Court is conducting hearings on the judicial changes. For now, no one knows in which direction the judges will sway.