Tyranny of the minority – the struggle over Israel’s regime

Oren Yiftachel

Middle East Monitor  /  April 11, 2023

The bitter struggle waged since January in Israel over the attempt by the Netanyahu sixth government to overhaul the judiciary and the regime, is often portrayed as a struggle between a narrow political majority and a large minority. ‘Tyranny of the majority’ is a criticism often levelled at the current government, which tries to ram through rapid constitutional changes. But this is mistaken; what we are witnessing is the dangerous emergence of ’tyranny of a minority’ which aims to deepen the apartheid taking root in the entire area under the Israeli regime.

The government coalition claims that, with its recent election victory, it has the right to legislate and implement its policies. The opposition claims the coalition’s proposed “reform” will terminate the judicial autonomy needed for the protection of human rights and survival of democracy. Both sides, so it seems, accept that ’the people have spoken’ and that the current government enjoys a legitimate majority.

However, a deeper look reveals a very different picture. There is no majority at all behind the current government, let alone legitimacy for its destructive moves. First, the coalition parties received only 48.4 per cent of the vote in the last election. Their parliamentary majority was achieved as two leftist parties failed to cross the threshold line and, hence, gave the nationalist and religious block a chance to form a government.

Second, and more importantly, the majority in a democratic government is supposed to be drawn from the entire population under the regime. The current government declared, time and again, its intension to control the whole territory between Jordan and the Sea, as announced in the opening sentence of the current coalition agreement:

“the Jewish people has an exclusive and unbreakable right to the entire Land of Israel. The government will advance and develop Jewish settlement in all parts of the land – in the Galilee, Negev, Golan, Judea and Samaria.”

Hence, the government openly declares its intention to rule over seven million Palestinians (about half the population of Israel/Palestine), five million of whom have no citizenship or voting rights. Therefore, it is clear that we are faced with a minority which seeks to undemocratically rule over a large disenfranchised Palestinian population, as well as over half the Israeli population. In other words, creating a tyranny of the minority.

One may ask: why do they need to overhaul the judiciary? The answer is clear: the courts are potentially the last obstacle against deepening a ‘legalised’ regime of Jewish supremacy. Hence, weakening the judicial system is ‘needed’ as the current government seeks to institutionalise an apartheid system and set in stone (patriarchal and, at times, religious) Jewish supremacy between River and Sea.

True, over the years the Israeli legal system has systematically discriminated against Palestinian Arabs on both sides of the Green Line, and has insufficiently protected human and social individual rights. It has also allowed Israeli governments to continue the colonial Judaisation (under the guise of “settling the periphery”), and has hastened the privatisation of most services, thereby marginalising further social peripheries.

Yet, at the same time, given the lack of a constitution, bill of rights or compliance with international law, the High Court of Justice has, at times, prevented the implementation of harsh laws and policies, such as mass evictions, denial of water and medical services, lack of transport and public facilities, or cases of blatant ethnic discrimination. This has indeed been only partial and insufficient, but future rulings by judges appointed by political leaders – as suggested by the current ‘reform’— would mean the termination of partial protections, thereby exposing Palestinians to even more brutal laws and policies.

At present, Israel’s judicial system can be likened to a leaking roof during a massive blizzard. Despite its many holes, it still offers some protection. Yet, if the roof breaks, all will be exposed to a deadly blizzard. In our case ’the blizzard’ is the deepening of Israeli-Jewish apartheid regime with its wide arsenal of oppressions.

It is not accidental that the leaders of the current ‘judicial revolution’ hail mainly from the colonial settlers’ movement. They include the coup’s main architect, Yariv Levin – Chair of the Knesset ‘Land of Israel’ lobby group; the coup’s co-leader, Simha Rotman – a resident of an illegal ‘outpost’; Bezalel Smotrich – head of the expansionist ‘Religious Zionist’ party and a settler living on stolen private Palestinian land; Itamar Ben-Gvir – leader of the racist “Jewish Power’ party and David Amsalem – a radical settler and Likud minister. All the above promote de-jure Jewish supremacy over the entire land, that is – Jewish apartheid. At present, they find a good ally in a Prime Minister who, in his attempt to derail his criminal trial, is ready to attack the judiciary with all his power.

The current wave of protests engulfing Israel is unprecedented and inspiring. For over three months, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets using demonstrations, strikes and disruptions to stop the anti-democratic coup. Israeli civil society shows strength and determination like never before. Despite this impressive show of protest, it is still insufficient at this point to change the direction of the overhaul.

Despite its amazing force and momentum, the current wave of protest is not without some problems. It gives centre stage to the Israeli military, economic and cultural (mainly Ashkenazi) elites, while it is mainly the Palestinian Arabs, lower income Jewish peripheral populations and women who are likely to bear the brunt of the so-called ‘reforms’. The protest should not only demand the halting of the anti-democratic legislation but use the opportunity to rebuild the justice system, which needs more, not less, judicial power to assist in addressing the ills of the colonial and neoliberal capitalist regimes. The current moment is a rare historical opportunity, when the chants for democracy, equality and justice roar, week in, week out, by hundreds of thousands in the streets.

Further, the political imagination and mobilisation of the protest leaders must be widened to include all residing under the Israeli regime. Democracy cannot coexist with apartheid. Hence, the obvious response to the emerging tyranny is the creation of a ‘front against apartheid’ which would include all people – Jews and Palestinians alike – living under the current regime who support democracy and equality.

Such a front would require uneasy compromises from most players, but its creation will not only give voice to the people most likely to be targeted by the coup (Palestinian Arabs), but could also build a political majority, which is all but impossible without the Palestinian citizens. Such an agenda is, thus, both moral and political.  The current protest is still at a necessary defensive stage, attempting to block the judicial coup. But building a long-term decolonial and democratic vision is now absolutely necessary, and is a most urgent step in preventing and reversing the imminent danger of tyranny of the minority.

 Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba, and is the author of Land and Power: Israel/Palestine from Ethnocracy to Creeping Apartheid (Resling, 2021); he is a co-founder of the peace movement ‘A Land for All’ which calls for a Palestinian-Israeli confederation as the right vision for peace