The massive extended protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued, even as protesters claimed credit for a victory. Netanyahu postponed consideration a plan to severely limit the independence of the judiciary, frustrating hard right allies within his coalition and, for the moment at least, emboldening the opposition, as seen above in the streets of Tel-Aviv.
Why the protesters in the street won at all, when large persistent protests elsewhere (for example, France–against raising the retirement age; Kentucky–against a bill criminalizing gender affirming care; Tennessee–for modest gun safety measures) have yet to make an impact on policy, is the first issue. Why the protests continue after an apparent win is the second.
The size and number of protests matters, of course, but it’s not enough. In any kind of democratic system, protesters need allies in government willing to listen to them. Protesting Israelis had to mount a political threat to the Netanyahu government, which means signaling the capacity to disrupt the governing coalition. On the surface, this shouldn’t have been so difficult: Netanyahu’s far-right government was supported by 64 of 120 members of the Knesset–oddly, the largest majority a government had enjoyed in years. But the people protesting didn’t appear to include anyone the governing parties needed.
Netanyahu’s proposed reform would have allowed the government to appoint judges and to ignore their rulings–an essential demand for some of the far right and religious parties–and a massive provocation to their opponents, who viewed it as a threat to democratic governance altogether. The scope of this threat, coupled with longstanding antipathy to Netanyahu, helped sustain large protests.
But there was more: Military service in Israel is extremely common, if not quite universal, with exemptions for Arabs and ultra-orthodox Israelis. Broad conscription means that the Israeli Defense Force includes men and women from across the political spectrum who are prepared to participate in campaigns they might oppose as matters of policy (for example, harsh policing of Palestinians; relocating resistant religious settlers). For better and worse, democratic legitimacy makes this possible.
As the campaign against the government grew, it touched the military. Hundreds of reservists who served in exclusive units, including special forces and intelligence, announced that they would not show up for service. Fighter pilots demanded an end to the reform, threatening to refuse calls to service as well. And the tremendous disruption within Israel gave US President Joe Biden the incentive and political space to weigh in as well, announcing that decades of US military and political support was a response to Israel’s commitment to democracy.
Netanyahu was prepared to push ahead regardless, but his Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, was not. Netanyahu fired Gallant immediately, but furtive negotiations within his coalition suggested that Gallant was not the only one prepared to leave the government to preserve an independent judiciary. Remember the narrow margins–it would take just a few defectors to bring the government down. Political unrest within the government made the street protests possible, and the prime minister announced that he would return to judicial reform later.
Stalling on judicial reform, while making additional concessions to the far right he disappointed, allowed Netanyahu to survive the moment, but he’d announced a postponement, not an end. Netanyahu plans to bring it back when, he hopes, political circumstances will be more favorable. The opposition’s victory could be short-lived. It wouldn’t be the first time. Surely, some protesters remembered that Hong Kong’s leadership suspended an unpopular law to stop a protest movement in 2019, only to institute far harsher reforms months later.
So, thus far, the protests continue, as a broad opposition evaluates broader goals, perhaps ousting Netanyahu, or adopting some kind of Constitution. It’s not over.
Meanwhile, on the outside, activists want to take inspiration from the successes of the moment. But we need to remember that the opposition didn’t succeed because they waved Israeli flags at the demonstrations, nor just because of their numbers, the tactics, or commitment. Tunnel vision on the actions in the streets leads to missing the importance of connecting protest to politics.
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