Netanyahu’s attempt to reform Israel’s judiciary is bringing the occupation home

Hussein Ibish

The National  /  April 3, 2023

A new Israeli political majority is, in the meantime, dividing America’s Jewish population along partisan lines.

The uproar in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to transform the judicial system is accelerating trends reshaping US-Israel relations. But it is also integrally related to the occupation Israel maintains over millions of Palestinians. These two threads interweave in a complex pattern that poses serious challenges to Israel, the US and the Palestinians alike.

From its founding, Israel touted itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East”. This was never true. It was only for a few years in the mid-1960s, after martial law for Palestinian citizens of Israel was lifted and before the occupation began in 1967, that most Arabs living under Israeli rule were not systematically excluded from the most basic democratic processes.

Since 1967, Israel has ruled over millions of Palestinians who have no access whatsoever to the government that controls them. They live side-by-side with Jewish settlers, but under completely different legal systems and with all aspects of life separate and radically unequal.

There are few, if any, socio-political systems that are more oppressive than those Israel maintains over Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Yet the occupation has become almost invisible to most Jewish Israelis. It has not been a factor in an Israeli election in ages, as if the only related issues worth talking about involve Jewish settlers and settlements.

There is the occasional flash of anxiety about violence in, or coming out of, the occupied territories, but most Israelis appear confident this problem is effectively under the control of the military, with the grudging co-operation of the Palestinian Authority security forces.

None of this, unfortunately, is good news for Palestinians

But whether such a sanguine attitude about holding some 5 million people in subjugation with little prospect of any meaningful change is rational, most Jewish Israelis have also become blind to another dangerous, albeit very different, threat posed to them by the occupation.

Israelis typically take pride in their democracy, which for Jewish citizens has been vibrant and impressive and which the demonstrators are trying to protect. But the Arab citizens, about 18 per cent of Israel’s population, not to mention the millions of Palestinians living under occupation, have been excluded to one degree or another from this democracy.

Israel, especially with no end in sight for the occupation, cannot honestly be described as a “democracy”. It would instead be better categorised as an “ethnocracy“ – the rule of one ethnic group over another – or at least a restricted “Jewish democracy”.

The unstated assumption among Israelis since 1967 has been that they can manage the occupied territories and Palestinians living there on a completely separate, parallel track to their own Jewish democracy inside Israel – even when extended to the settlements or wherever a Jewish Israeli happens to be in the occupied territories – without any damaging cross-contamination.

Most Israeli analysts have ignored the occupation as a factor in Mr Netanyahu’s attempt to redefine Israel’s Jewish democratic system and would probably dismiss this contention. Yet from an Arab perspective, it seems obvious that decades of repression, lawlessness and arbitrary governance in the occupied territories have served as an indispensable foundation on which the attempted attack on judicial independence rests.

It is not just a matter of angry, and at times violent, Palestinian responses to Israeli repression. It is also the impact that maintaining this system has had on the attitude of Jewish Israelis about the nature of political power.

All this comes as most religiously and politically liberal Jewish Americans are being systematically alienated by concomitant efforts from Mr Netanyahu’s coalition to exclude large numbers of them from the Jewish fold under Israeli law. They are also exasperated with Israel’s increasing abandonment of a two-state solution and embrace of eventual annexation.

US President Joe Biden, in opposing the judicial overhaul effort, said the Israelis “know my position” and, more pointedly, “the American Jewish position”. Obviously, Mr Biden does not speak for all Jewish Americans, particularly not the religious conservatives many of whom generally support Mr Netanyahu’s coalition. But he’s accurately speaking for most mainstream Jewish Americans, who are firmly rooted in the Democratic Party and feel increasingly alienated by these extreme religious and chauvinistic policies which seem to represent a new Israeli majority.

From its outset, the cornerstone of Jewish-American lobbying for Israel has been to prevent the issue from becoming partisan, ensuring both parties support Israel. But that seems to be happening now, as Republicans and their evangelical Christian base are increasingly supportive of the theocratic and annexationist Israeli right. They are joined by religiously conservative Jewish constituencies, but the large majority of Jewish Americans are Democrats, liberals and increasingly alienated from Israeli government policies.

Slowly and quietly, the premier Jewish American pro-Israel lobbying umbrella, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – better known as Aipac – is aligning with Republicans, including from the Donald Trump faction.

It appears that the founding image of Jewish-American pro-Israel lobbying – support for the country turning into a partisan issue in the US and therefore vulnerable to election outcomes – may now be virtually irreversible and only likely to intensify.

None of this, unfortunately, is good news for Palestinians. New finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, at a recent speech in Paris – from a podium draped with a flag showing Israel including not just all the occupied Palestinian territories but all of Jordan as well – thundered that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people”. In just a few months, he has clearly demonstrated far more interest in annexation than finance. If he and his ilk can turn such dangerous provocations into Israeli policies, they won’t hesitate.

The Israeli demonstrations that forced Mr Netanyahu to pause his attempted judicial changes do not seem to have prompted much reconsideration of the impact of the occupation on their own political culture. But, at least in theory, these throngs ought to provide a base with which the Palestinians, who lack their own effective national leadership and policies, can finally begin to purposively re-engage.

Unfortunately, the next serious test for all parties may come only when the violence brewing in the West Bank eventually erupts into another sustained revolt, potentially providing Israeli extremists with plausible rationalisations for annexation and expulsion. History is distinctly discouraging. And Washington – whether controlled by alienated Democrats or pro-annexation Republicans – may be more uninterested than ever in stepping into the breach.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National