Israeli crisis: This is not about democracy, it’s about liberal Zionist supremacy

Sai Englert

Middle East Eye  /  March 28, 2023

Israel is an apartheid state based on Palestinian dispossession, with half the people living under its direct rule denied the vote. So much for the protesters’ precious liberal democracy.

Following three months of mobilization across Israeli society, which has seen hundreds of thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, the repeated blocking of major highways, mass refusal by reservists to report for military duty, and a mixture of strike action and employer lockouts, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu appears – at the time of writing – to have been forced to concede at least partially to the demands of the social movement.

On Monday evening, Netanyahu announced he was delaying his government’s contentious remake of the country’s courts.

“Out of a sense of national responsibility, out of a will to prevent a rupture among our people, I have decided to pause the second and third readings of the bill,” he told the country’s legislature.

After firing his Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, over the latter’s calls to pause the government’s judicial reform, Netanyahu appeared to lose control over an already chaotic situation. Employers’ organizations and the Histadrut – Israel’s largest trade union federation and a historic pillar of the Zionist colonial movement – announced jointly that they would shut down the economy. Malls, universities, hospitals and factories, as well as Israel’s only airport, were closed down, alongside kindergartens and schools. 

The current political crisis emerged at the end of last year when Netanyahu was re-elected as prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition, which ranged from his own Likud party and his usual ultra-Orthodox allies, to the most radical organization of the settler right.

Aggressively anti-Palestinian and in favour of an even-more rapid expansion of the settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, the coalition promised more of the same for Palestinians: Israeli colonial violence, theft and murder – but on steroids. 

At the same time, the coalition made central to its narrative that the Israeli left had controlled the levers of power of the state for too long and that it would put an end to this as quickly as possible. Central to this program stands a proposed judicial reform that would limit the power of Israel’s high court and put it under the control of parliament – that is of the ruling coalition. 

All-out assault on democracy

Under these reforms, the appointment of judges would become a parliamentary decision, while rulings made by the court could be overturned by a parliamentary majority. This, critics of the reform argue, is an all-out assault on Israeli democracy and would usher in the end of a much acclaimed Israeli liberal democratic order.

Adding fuel to the fire, the government has also proposed and fast-tracked a series of other laws that have been widely perceived – even by right-wing commentators and supporters of the government – as nakedly self-interested. Ranging from legalizing “gifts” to public servants and lifting the ban on convicted politicians serving in the government, to limiting journalists’ ability to publish recordings of politicians, the government’s wish list infuriated an already hostile opposition.

The crown jewel in this pack of reforms was last week’s successfully passed bill which makes impeaching a sitting PM so difficult that Netanyahu effectively achieved immunity, protecting him from the potential outcomes of his ongoing corruption trial. 

The scene was set for a full-frontal confrontation between the pro- and anti-Netanyahu camps in Israeli society. 

Indeed, pro- and anti-Netanyahu – or pro- and anti-coalition – camps is a better way to understand the current struggle in Israel. Traditional ideas of left and right do not quite capture political divisions in Israel in general, and in the current moment in particular. 

As mentioned above, key participants in the opposition to the government’s reforms have been employers’ organizations and reservists in military units considered as “elite” in Israel, that is battle-hardened. 

Central to these have been the fighter pilots – the same pilots who have made an international name for themselves in regularly carpet-bombing the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip with the horrendous consequences that are so well documented.

Benny Gantz, the leader of the opposition and a key figure of the movement, made his political career on the back of the 2014 massacre in Gaza, which he oversaw as the Israeli army’s chief of staff. He told demonstrators in February that they had to defend the high court because: “For decades, I guarded you. And while I guarded you, the court guarded me.”

None of these groups is helpfully understood as left-wing.

Widespread horror

Similarly, the traditional organizations of the Israeli labour movement, such as the Histadrut or the Labor Party, have historically been the key architects of Palestinian dispossession.

It is worth restating, in the midst of the current debates, that it was the Israeli labour movement – through its union federation, its kibbutzim (collective farms), its militias, and its political party – who fought for the exclusion of Palestinians from the state and the labour market, and imposed military rule on Palestinian citizens of the state until 1966 and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories after 1967.

It was these same actors that expelled over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, razed more than 500 villages and urban centres to the ground, and barred any refugees from returning to their homes in its aftermath – in direct contravention of international law. It is again difficult to consider these organizations as particularly progressive – let alone as defenders of democracy.

This tension was illustrated well in the recent furore which surrounded Bezalel Smotrich’s statements at a conference in France, in which he said: ‘There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.”

Smotrich is the current minister of finance, a settler in the West Bank, and the first civilian politician (as opposed to a military official) to have been put in charge of Israel’s illegal rule over the occupied Palestinian territories. 

His comments generated widespread horror – as they should – in their overt racist denial of even the most basic fact of Palestinian existence. Even the Gulf states, normally so happy to collaborate with Israel, found it necessary to call on the US to intervene. 

Democracy – for whom? 

However, the sentiments expressed by Smotrich are neither new nor surprising. 

Indeed, they are the obvious ideological presupposition for the ongoing colonization of Palestine by Israel. As the old Zionist slogan had it: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” Most famously, Golda Meir – a stalwart of the Histadrut and the Labor Party, who served as Israel’s first and only female PM – declared in 1969 that “there were no such thing as Palestinians”.

An armed settler gestures to a Palestinian after settlers attacks against Palestinians in Burin village, occupied West Bank on 25 February, 2023 (AFP)

For all the denunciations, then, of the Israeli right, it would be good to remember that the Israeli left has always shared similar ideas. The problem, it seems, is Zionism.

Restating these basic historical facts is important because it allows us to make sense of the shape – and the limits – of the current social movement in Israel.

While some of the international coverage about the reforms has focused on their potential effects for Palestinians – allowing, for example, for the legalization of settler outposts against the rulings made by the high court – these same issues have been virtually absent from both the movement and public debate.

Instead, demonstrators have draped themselves in Israeli flags and positioned themselves as the defenders of the state, and its institutions, against illegitimate intruders – the very institutions which have developed and institutionalized Israel’s apartheid regime against the Palestinians.

The few Palestinian citizens of the state who have tried, out of ideological conviction, to intervene in the movement, have found themselves excluded, silenced or censured. Reem Hazzan, for example, was invited to speak at an anti-Netanyahu rally in Haifa. She was made to submit her speech in advance to the organizers, who then demanded that she alter it.

Hazzan had planned to tell demonstrators that there is a direct connection between the rollback of Israel’s democratic institutions and the ongoing, decades-long military occupation of, and racial discrimination against, Palestinians on both sides of the green line. This, it seems, is not what the movement’s struggle for “democracy” is about.

‘Jewish supremacy’

Hazzan is not alone. So egregious is the systematic exclusion of Palestinians, and so total is the refusal to examine what the reality of Israeli “democracy” has been for the millions of Palestinians who live under its rule, either as second-class citizens or as subjects of its military regime, that Tajammu (Balad), a key Palestinian political party which operates inside Israel, released a statement that read:

“Ignoring the immediate connection between the ongoing violation of the rights of the Palestinian people on both sides of the green line and the judicial coup informs us that it is not for a genuine democracy and substantial citizenship that the masses are currently taking to the streets, but for the preservation of the “Jewish and democratic” equation, which focuses on a procedural democracy that is founded on the concept of Jewish supremacy … Expecting the Palestinian-Arab public to mobilize for this struggle is more than unfounded; it also amounts to insolence.”

The exclusion of Palestinians and their demands is all the more egregious since the election of the Netanyahu government has been understood – rightly – by the military and settler movement as an indication that they now have free rein in the West Bank. Over 80 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, with military assaults intensifying in frequency and violence, particularly in the cities of Jenin and Nablus. 

The most striking example of the increased confidence the government has given settlers was the pogrom in the town of Huwwara, where hundreds of settlers rampaged for hours, attacking residents, burning cars and destroying shops and houses.

Nearly 400 Palestinians were wounded and one killed. The whole attack unfolded under the watchful eye of the military. In response, Smotrich stated: “Huwwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.” 

It is disturbing, to say the least, that in such a context it is to save the separation of powers that hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets – refusing to even give a hearing to the victims of Israel’s “liberal democratic” regime.

What liberal democracy?

The current protest movement in Israel is not a movement to transform Israeli politics. It is not even a movement for democracy. It is a movement that fights to maintain the Israeli status quo: a society built on stolen land and the ongoing exclusion of Palestinians, which rubber stamps its colonial rule through a legal system that only itself recognizes. 

The social groups and the institutions that participate in the movement repeatedly make this clear, and the power relations which they repeat within it confirm it further. One would be forgiven to ask if a colonial society that legalizes its expansionist policies through its high court is better, or more democratic, in any meaningful sense, than one that does so through its parliament.

What does it mean to talk about Israel as a liberal democracy, when its institutions maintain the deadly blockade on Gaza, continue to expand settlements in the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, and maintain over 65 laws specifically targeted at Palestinians on both sides of the green line? 

Is there any sense in discussing a state as a liberal democracy, which not only expelled hundreds of thousands of its citizens-to-be, but continues to refuse them and their descendants the right to return? What sort of democracy – liberal or otherwise – is based on the denial of the basic right to vote to roughly half of the population – about six million people – that live under its direct rule? 

It is worth remembering that all these decisions were made and carried out under the watchful eye of the Israeli high court.

The truth is that there can be no democracy under racial supremacy. An apartheid regime is by definition illiberal. Settler colonial domination requires the forceful rule of one group over another. Netanyahu’s coalition might fall. It might weather the storm.

Either way, democracy will not emerge victorious between the river and the sea. 

It would require challenging the most basic ideas of Zionism to achieve such an outcome: that a democratic state should be for and of all of its inhabitants.

That struggle is not being waged in the streets outside the Knesset nor carried out by Israeli unions, soldiers and employers. Its victory is, and always was, dependent on the achievement of the demands formulated so long ago by the Palestinian national movement: liberation and return.

Sai Englert is a lecturer in political economy of the Middle East at Leiden University; he is the author of Settler Colonialism: an Introduction