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Op/ed: What’s Happened and What’s Next After Israel’s Protests?

Outpouring of Dissent Could Serve as Check on Future Authoritarianism, UMD Researcher Says

By Paul Scham

Protestors wave Israel flags

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul bills outside the Knesset, Israel's legislature, in Jerusalem last week.

Photo by Gili Yaari/NurPhoto via AP

Last Monday, protests in Israel crested over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition’s plan to pass a judicial overhaul that would weaken the country’s court system. Labor strikes shut down Ben Gurion Airport, the country’s main international hub, and tens of thousands of citizens took to the streets after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had spoken out against the court reform. Eventually, Netanyahu elected to delay any decision on the plan until after the parliament’s month-long Passover recess, which began this week.

In an essay for the Middle East Institute (MEI), Professor Paul Scham, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies and a non-resident scholar at MEI, writes that the threat of constitutional crisis and wave of dissent has spurred hopes of a new vision of democracy rising in Israel:

Netanyahu was unquestionably forced to make the postponement concession by the massive outpouring of protest; one poll showed that two-thirds of the Israeli public was against the legislation in its current form. Nevertheless, his entire coalition supports the reform in its current form. Even Minister of Defense Gallant, who is apparently remaining in office since he was not given the requisite legal notice, stressed that his call for delay stemmed solely from fear of damage to Israel’s military preparedness after thousands of Israel Defense Forces reservists threatened not to show up for duty. The handful of coalition MKs, all from Likud, who had indicated reservations about proceeding immediately, were likewise aboard in principle. This may make the negotiations difficult, if not impossible.

Dialogue, of course, is the civilized way to proceed, but finding a solution even remotely palatable to all is made significantly more difficult by the disparate composition of the coalition, in which Netanyahu holds less power and influence than in any of the previous five governments he headed. His four coalition partners are ideologically driven and all have very different visions of Israel’s society and priorities than do most Israelis or, in fact, than did Netanyahu himself during most of his political career. Moreover, with the increasing polarization of Israeli society during the last decade, the non-Arab Israeli parties have now formed into two solid blocs, usually called right and left, but they are more accurately described as “never-Bibi” and “pro-Bibi if he does what we want.” However, neither his partners nor his opponents retain any trust in Bibi’s word, and there is considerable suspicion he may push the reforms through unaltered. Thus, despite his promise to delay the bill and negotiate with the opposition, the regular Saturday night demonstration attracted as many — or more — Israelis as the previous ones.

Read the rest at the Middle East Institute website.



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