Israelis are not demonstrating for democracy

Yara Hawari

Al-Jazeera  /  January 16, 2023

Democracy in Israel would mean an end to apartheid. That is not what the Israeli protesters want.

Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities to protest what they see as an erosion of their country’s democracy. The demonstrations were sparked by legislation announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that – if passed by the Knesset – would overhaul the Israeli judicial system. The move is seen by many as an attempt by the prime minister, who is being prosecuted on corruption charges, to rein in the judiciary and dodge prison time.

Some of the slogans on display at the protests proclaimed “the end of democracy” under a “criminal government”. For sure, Netanyahu’s coalition of far-right and conservative religious parties are no proponents of pluralism, civil rights and liberties. They include gun-wielding Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is the new internal security minister, and self-described “proud homophobe” Bezalel Smotrich, who has taken on the finance portfolio.

Netanyahu himself is also no advocate of the rule of law, having done everything and anything to cling to power and avoid being held accountable for corrupt practices.

But to single him out as a “crime minister” and his government as the one “destroying Israeli democracy” is quite a stretch. There has been no Israeli prime minister that hasn’t been a criminal with hands stained with the blood of Palestinians, and there has been no Israeli government that has actually upheld democracy. The Israeli “democratic state” is and always has been a myth, an illusion built to sustain the oppression of the Palestinian people and continue their dispossession.

One just has to look at who turned up at the “pro-democracy” protests. There was former Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who has been accused of war crimes during the 2014 war on Gaza. He told the crowd that they should fight in “all legal ways to prevent a coup”. Then there was former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, also accused of war crimes in Gaza, but for the 2009 war on the strip. She declared: “Together we will protect the state because it is for all of us.”

But “for all of us” it is not. That was made clear when the crowd turned hostile on the small number of anti-Zionists who showed up at the protest with Palestinian flags. Those were quickly pulled down by fellow “pro-democracy” protesters.

It is also worth taking a look at the institution that Netanyahu is accused of assaulting: Israel’s Supreme Court, which supervises the Israeli regime’s commitment to its constitutional framework, also known as the Basic Laws. Protesters say it is an important entity that, if gutted, would diminish the checks and balances within the Israeli state.

But the long record of Supreme Court rulings against Palestinian rights call into question whether it has ever maintained checks and balances on absolute Israeli military power or rather whether it has provided a legal veneer for the Israeli regime’s crimes against the Palestinian people.

For example, in a 2018 ruling on the open-fire regulations used by the Israeli army during the March of Return in Gaza, the court concluded that the army stuck to the principles of necessity and proportionality, which is blatantly not the case. During the two years the march was held in, 214 unarmed Palestinians were killed and tens of thousands injured (many becoming disabled as a result) due to indiscriminate shooting by the Israeli army.

In July, the same court ruled that an illegal Jewish settlement built on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank was legal, paving the way for more mass confiscations of occupied Palestinian land, which amounts to a war crime. The same month it also approved stripping Palestinian citizens of Israel of their citizenship if they are deemed “disloyal”.

These are just a few examples among many that demonstrate how the Israeli Supreme Court has continuously sanctioned violations of Palestinian rights since its establishment. Of course, that fact is completely ignored by the protesters, who see it as an institution that guarantees their rights.

Indeed, the judicial reform legislation along with the ultra-conservative agenda pursued by Netanyahu’s far-right allies has put liberal Zionists in panic mode. Their liberties, which have always come at the expense of the rights of the Palestinians, are about to be eroded. No longer will they be able to proclaim with glee that their state is a beacon of light in an otherwise savage region.

The facade is falling away, and the Israeli regime is revealing to the world a hard truth: that its very foundation is inherently antithetical to democracy.

How else can one describe an entity that was built on the ethnic cleansing of other people and implements an apartheid regime? How else can one describe a regime that keeps an entire group of people under lock and key? How else can one describe a regime whose founding laws enshrine supremacy for one group of citizens over another?

If Netanyahu’s far-right government were to fall tomorrow, none of this would change. In fact, the “pro-democracy” protesters do not want it to change. That is because they want to preserve Jewish supremacy and Israeli apartheid from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea more than anything else.

Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.