Why Israel’s opposition won’t talk about the real goal of judicial overhaul

Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man

+972 Magazine  /  February 21, 2023

Government officials have explicitly said their legal reforms are about annexation. Opponents won’t admit it because they share the same vision.

Almost exactly 10 years ago, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, then a young rising star in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, spoke at a conference put on by the Israeli Sovereignty Movement, which advocates for Israel to fully annex the occupied Palestinian territories. Before laying out a four-stage plan for what many have called “creeping annexation” through smaller, incremental steps of applying Israeli law to the West Bank, Levin had a warning for his audience of ideologues.

“I have no doubt that we will be able to, not too long from now, extend sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel,” he assured the attendees. “It’s important to see that vision because sometimes it clashes with the tactics and compromises that must be made along the way. We need to stick to the vision but behave wisely in the day-to-day, I might even say with sophistication at times, in order to ultimately achieve our goal.”

A year later, Levin again spoke at the conference. Beyond the under-the-radar and harder-to-stop steps that he presented in his previous appearance, the Likud politician introduced two major prerequisites for full annexation. The first, he cautioned, is a slow and patient campaign to change the way the Israeli public, including the annexationist Israeli right, thinks and talks about the Palestinian issue after decades in which the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution framed the conversation.

The second sine qua non for annexation he discussed was far bolder: a complete overhaul of Israel’s legal and judicial systems. “We cannot accept the current situation in which the judicial system is controlled by a radical leftist, post-Zionist minority that elects itself behind closed doors, dictating to us its own values — not just on [annexation] but also on other issues,” Levin explained. “A change in the legal system is essential because it will allow us, and will make much easier for us, to take tangible steps on the ground that strengthen the process of advancing sovereignty.”

Many on the Israeli right view the country’s judiciary, which in reality has supported and enabled the very existence and expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, as hostile to the settler movement. They see occasional constraints the court has implemented — in particular, that it struck down a law that would have legalized Jewish settlements built on stolen private Palestinian property — as the central impediment to their ability to fulfill their annexationist dreams, which for them are a combination of messianic and ideological commandments.

Fast forward 10 years and Levin is Israel’s new justice minister, fast-tracking a complete overhaul of the country’s legal and judicial systems, in a process many within Israel are calling an attempted coup d’état. The plans have sparked a mass protest movement in Israel that has seen weekly demonstrations, national strikes, threats of capital flight, and high-profile figures calling for civil disobedience.

Despite the growing uproar, the Knesset on Monday night passed the first reading of a bill that would give the government greater control over Israel’s judicial selection committee, and block the Supreme Court from exercising judicial review of the country’s Basic Laws. The bill requires two more readings to be enacted into law.

In a country with a constitutional order characterized by its leaders’ innumerable decisions to not make decisions, the prospect of a determined far-right government consolidating power and subverting the only institutional check on its ambitions is indeed terrifying. And so, in the minds of many Israelis, they are in a fight to save the democracy, freedoms, and liberties that have been their experience of the country for three-quarters of a century.

But that prompts a crucial question: why is the underlying ideological and policy goal propelling this far-right overhaul of Israel’s entire system of governance — that is, unilaterally annexing the occupied territories — so absent from the public discourse and the outcry in the streets?

Not a radical agenda

One doesn’t need to look for 10-year-old YouTube videos to understand the fanatic obsession the Israeli right has with annexation. Just a few years ago, in a government not dissimilar to today’s, Netanyahu said he was days away from officially annexing large swathes of the occupied West Bank, a plan reportedly frozen in exchange for normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, followed by Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Following that disaster for the annexationist right, then-Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin, together with now-Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, established the “Caucus for the Land of Israel” in 2020. While warning his ideological bedfellows that as Knesset speaker he will have to speak “in a stately manner,” Levin reassured his allies at the caucus’s first meeting that he would nevertheless work to advance annexation. “Sovereignty over the entire land of Israel,” he said, “is the irrevocable right of the Jewish people. It is our obligation, and not a matter of choice, to fulfill it.”

It’s important to look at Levin’s leadership in the push for annexation for two reasons. The first is because he is now in a position to lay the legal groundwork for its implementation. The second is because this government’s annexationist plans, both within Israel and internationally, tend to be dismissed as the vision of the extremist settler politicians and parties it has empowered, and upon whose backs Netanyahu was able to climb back to power after four inconclusive elections and a short-lived stint in the opposition.

The Land of Israel Caucus, which Levin co-founded in order to advance cross-party legislative strategies and alliances aimed at annexation, has always been dominated by the Likud. In the 23rd Knesset, when the caucus was established, Likud parliamentarians made up 44 percent of its members, comprising more than half of the party’s elected representatives. Since then, in the 24th Knesset that ended last November, 87 percent of Likud’s Knesset members were a part of the caucus, representing 57 percent of the caucus. A few years before that, the Likud Central Committee voted to endorse annexation as part of its platform.

Despite their explicit agenda, in the broader public discourse, Netanyahu and the Likud are perceived to be overhauling the Israeli system of government for different megalomanic and corrupt reasons. The prime minister, the argument goes, is currently on trial for corruption — a major reason his historical partners have cited for abandoning him — and the only way for him to guarantee he stays out of jail is by seizing control of the judicial branch. Within that narrative, the governmental overhaul is being framed merely as a power grab, albeit one with far-reaching consequences for Israel’s economy, diplomatic standing, civil rights, and one of the most fraught fault lines of all: religion and state.

It is the smaller, more radical parties in this latest Netanyahu government, led by Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, that are popularly credited with using the judicial overhaul as a way to finally achieve their dream of annexation, unfettered settlement expansion, and the expulsion of as many Palestinians as possible. To most of the opposition, they are at best opportunists who identified a moment where their messianic fantasies converge with Netanyahu’s personal interests, and where they finally have leverage because without them, the government would collapse.

As a result, the struggle to save Israeli democracy paints its dystopia as a parallel to the descent into authoritarianism seen in Hungary and Poland over the past decade. Stopping the “Orbanization” of Israel has thus become a rallying cry of sort for the opposition.

A settler ethos that crosses all aisles

The reason for this dissonance between the opposition’s narrative and the Likud’s real agenda is twofold. First, because it is partly true: Netanyahu does indeed need these coalition partners, namely for his own political survival and personal freedom. The second reason boils down to the fact that the Israeli opposition and Netanyahu share the same ideology, Zionism, the bedrock of which is the belief that God gave the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, that Jews have a right to settle any and all parts of that land, and that the survival of the Jewish people is dependent on the physical and political manifestation of that teaching.

The only serious challenge to that vision — the failed Oslo process envisioning partition and various degrees of limited Palestinian autonomy — never challenged the fundamental Zionist belief that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people. Where Israeli leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon diverged was about strategic compromise, not ideology. They, and those Israelis who followed their respective paths, never saw giving up on the full implementation — of what has become known as maximalist or expansionist Zionism — as negating it in any way.

That cornerstone of Zionism is why Rabin, Sharon, Barak, Shimon Peres, Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and every major Israeli politician who has proposed or sought to make territorial concessions never dreamed of giving up all of Israel’s settlements beyond the Green Line. A decade removed from the last credible peace process, support even for limited territorial concession has almost evaporated in Israel.

Irrespective of its historical accuracy, the Israeli left’s idea of land for peace has been discredited as a proven failure by most Zionist Israelis; even those remaining political parties still supporting a two-state solution, even just in theory, long ago internalized the futility of pursuing it. A recent poll found that Jewish-Israeli support for a permanent apartheid regime, in which Israel controls all of the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean but does not grant equal rights to Palestinians, has doubled from 15 to 29 percent just in the past two years. The number of Jewish-Israelis who support two states dropped from 43 to 34 percent over the same period of time.

Even more damning, a significant cross-section of those protesting against the Netanyahu-Levin-Smotrich-Ben Gvir plan — and also warning of blood in the streets — share the underlying set of ideological principles and policy goals their plan is designed to achieve.

For some Israelis, their opposition is personal: they abhor the idea of someone on trial for corruption leading their country. For others, like Avigdor Lieberman and many secular Israelis worried about religious coercion, it’s about Netanyahu’s alliance with religious Jewish parties. For those more affiliated with the center-left, the differences are about the cost to the Jewish experience of Israeli democracy and quasi-liberalism. Many economists and business elites are simply terrified of the predicted damage to Israel’s economy from an erosion of the rule of law and an independent judiciary.

The problem with ‘Israeli democracy’

Because these differences are not ideological, almost nobody is reckoning with the dissonance between their understanding of the Israeli democracy they are fighting to save, and the intrinsically undemocratic and illiberal apartheid regime upon which “Jewish sovereignty” has always been predicated.

The Israeli center and much of the Israeli right opposes the near-term annexation of the West Bank because they believe the status quo of a “temporary” 55-plus-year military occupation is more strategically prudent under the current circumstances. Formally erasing the distinction between the occupied territories and the recognized territory of Israel proper, in their view, would make it too difficult to convince the world that Israel is not an apartheid regime in which half of the population — Palestinians — are denied basic democratic, civil, and human rights.

That dissonance comes into focus when considering that the opposition to Netanyahu’s plan is not offering a competing vision. They are not suggesting Israel adopt a constitution with formal guarantees of equality, civil rights, democracy, or clarity on matters of religion and state. They are not willing to denounce the expansionist aspirations of Levin, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir, because those aspirations and the belief that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people are baked into the Zionist ethos. They are not capable of defining what Israeli democracy actually looks like if it continues ruling undemocratically over millions of Palestinians without granting them equal rights.

The chasm some are warning could lead Israel into a civil war, therefore, is not about competing visions for the country. It’s that one group is no longer content waiting for the “right conditions” to fulfill the Zionist dream of Jewish sovereignty over the entire Land of Israel, while the other prefers sticking to the political tradition of buying time by deciding not to decide.

For Netanyahu, Levin, Smotrich and Ben Gvir, the consequences of formalizing an apartheid regime that undercuts the notion of Israeli democracy — and some of the privileges and fortune that label affords them — are worth the cost, if the world is ever willing to impose one. And for the opposition, putting forth a genuinely alternative vision would require a level of self-interrogation and challenging of core beliefs that almost nobody would undertake voluntarily.

Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is Director of Research for Israel-Palestine at DAWN (Democracy for the Arab World Now)