A pro-government rally reveals the Israeli right’s internal cracks

Meron Rapoport

+972 Magazine  /  May 2, 2023

Netanyahu’s far-right partners overestimated their power to pursue the judicial overhaul. Now, they are turning the pressure on the prime minister.

Standing in front of the Knesset last Thursday, 200,000 right-wing Jewish Israelis called on the government to continue with its plans for judicial overhaul and weakening the Supreme Court. One after another, far-right leaders from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich vowed not to “give in” to the anti-government protests that have rocked the country since January. 

But the right-wing demonstration, dubbed the “March of the Million,” was about much more than the courts: it was, first and foremost, a protest against Benjamin Netanyahu and his attempts to freeze the government’s plans. And that should worry the prime minister.

On Jan. 4, Minister of Justice Yariv Levin and the Chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman launched a surprise attack to eliminate the liberal pockets of Israeli society. It is not entirely clear how involved Netanyahu was in planning this onslaught, but from the moment it was launched, he had no choice but to present it as his own.

We have seen such political situations before in Israel’s history. We know today that, in 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin was not aware that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan had long drawn up contingency plans to invade Lebanon; but that did not prevent Begin from approving the operation, or going on victory tours in occupied Lebanon in the early stages of the war. 

It is very possible that the dynamic between Netanyahu, Levin, and Rothman is similar to the dynamic between Begin, Sharon, and Eitan. In both the judicial overhaul and the First Lebanon War, the attack was based on an assessment that the other side was too weak and divided to put up a fight. But this assessment proved to be wrong fairly quickly, or at least did not take into account the wide-ranging consequences that such an attack could have. And as soon as the attack ran into difficulties, the ruler’s position was also undermined.

Levin and Rothman believed that the fate of the judicial overhaul would fall squarely on the Knesset, and therefore a majority of 64 MKs would be enough to pass anything they wanted. They did not foresee the massive demonstrations and the mobilization of the high-tech industry and the leaders of the economy against the judicial reform. They certainly did not foresee that the opposition would include mass refusal by the army elite, including pilots, special forces, and cyber units. And they certainly did not imagine that the U.S. president would stand in front of the cameras and say that Israel is “going in the wrong direction,” and therefore has no intention of meeting with Netanyahu in the near future. In short, they underestimated both the power of civil society and the importance of international legitimacy, and discovered in the flesh that those forces are much stronger than they initially thought.

Equally important, Levin and Rothman overestimated their own power. In their onslaught, they discovered that their coalition was far looser than they believed. Considerable parts of the Mizrahi middle class, which makes up a sizable chunk of the Likud base, are either on the fence or even opposed to the overhaul, as evidenced by the anti-government demonstrations in right-wing strongholds such as Netanya or Be’er Sheva. Even the Haredim, who want to crush the Supreme Court’s power for their own reasons, have chosen to take a neutral position now that the judicial plan has run into difficulties.

It is no coincidence, then, there were hardly any Haredim or Likud supporters at the “million man march.” It was mainly a demonstration of the religious settler right, Kahanists, and the fascist elements in the Likud which, according to a Channel 12 survey, represent a minority in the party.

The results are hard to contest. The Knesset’s winter session concluded without even one of Levin’s reforms passing. The surprise attack was defeated in the first battle. And this is where Netanyahu enters the picture. From the moment he realized that the assault had lost momentum, and that it could cause enormous damage to Israel, to the coalition’s stability, and, of course, to himself, he began trying to freeze it. Levin and Rothman, who were brought down from their euphoria to face reality, had to agree. This, of course, does not mean that Netanyahu plans to shelve the overhaul entirely — he still supports weakening the judicial system and strengthening the executive branch — but knows that, at least at this point, he has no path forward.

A battle that is far from over

What Netanyahu wants instead is for the government to go back to trench warfare, waiting for the right moment to strike. For years, trench warfare, what some refer to as the “status quo,” was Netanyahu’s specialty. He would attack the “elites” while embracing Israel’s high-tech industry. He could say that “the left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish” while glorifying liberal Tel Aviv and the freedoms of the LGBTQ community. He would talk openly about the two-state solution, while erasing the Green Line and crushing the Palestinian Authority. He would market Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East” while displaying open contempt for international law.

In 1982, Ariel Sharon spoke of “peace for Galilee,” the macabre name given to a war that sought to put the final nail in the coffin of Palestinian nationalism by the occupation of Beirut and the installation of a pro-Israel regime in Lebanon. In 2023, Levin and his friends speak of “legal reform,” but actually seek to fully formalize Jewish supremacy between the river and the sea.

This is how the leaders of the overhaul — as well as much of the opposition — view the concept of “Jewish democracy”: a country that is ruled only by and cares only for Jews. The recent proposal by members of the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, according to which the so-called “values of Zionism” will “guide” the state, is emblematic of this view. Crushing the judicial system and eliminating the power of the liberal sectors of Jewish society is merely collateral damage on the road to this goal.

The understanding, whether conscious or unconscious, that this is the actual goal of the reform might explain the general absence of the Likud base, many of whom care about “liberal” values, and the Haredim, many of whom are not obsessed with crushing Palestinian nationalism, from Thursday’s demonstration.

Precisely because Levin, Rothman, and their friends view themselves as revolutionaries, they see Netanyahu as a remnant of the “Ancien Régime.” As such, they are presenting him with an almost impossible choice: either put on the battle uniform and attack the court together in what currently appears to be a lost battle, or risk toppling his government, which may increase the chances that he will be convicted and sent to prison over corruption charges. Thursday’s demonstration was meant to remind him of this bitter truth.

The fact that Levin and Rothman’s blitzkrieg failed does not mean they are giving up the fight; on the contrary, they seem even more determined to pass the overhaul. What further complicates the situation is the fact that the Israeli protest movement also does not know what to do with its surprising success in repelling the right. It seems that the more conservative parts of the movement are ready to accept the idea of a trench war, return to the status quo, and retain their significant positions of power in Israel’s society, economy, and military.

And yet, it seems that there is also a segment of the protest movement that seeks to take advantage of this moment to fundamentally change the rules of the game and push Israel toward becoming an actual democracy, either through the writing of a constitution or by passing a Basic Law that would enshrine equality for all. This segment is attuned to calls not to return to the “old order” — whether it comes to Ashkenazi-Mizrahi relations, or Jewish-Arab [Palestinian] relations, or the occupation. But this part of the movement is still weak, and has no real plan for how to bring about this radical change.

Just as the “March of the Million,” despite its relatively large numbers, failed to hide the cracks within the right-wing camp, so has the success of the protest movement failed to hide its divisions, or the fact that it does not have an agreed-upon vision for action. One thing is certain: this battle is far from over.

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call