The fatal flaw of Israel's anti-government protests

The fatal flaw of Israel's anti-government protests
The reach and economic impact of the protests continue to propel the movement against Netanyahu's far-right government, but the elephant in the room remains: for Palestinians, there is no democracy to save, writes Richard Silverstein.
7 min read
09 Feb, 2023
A protester demonstrates against the new Israeli government as thousands rally for the fifth week in a row, in Tel Aviv on 4 February, 2023. [Getty]

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis rallied for the fifth week in a row against sweeping justice system “reforms” proposed by the new extreme right-wing government that would grant it power to directly appoint Supreme Court justices rather than via the current independent panel.

Reforms would also eliminate the Court’s ability to reject legislation that violates the country’s constitution, known as the Basic Laws. Instead, a majority vote of the parliament could overrule any judicial decision.

This feature is designed, at least in part, to dismiss the corruption trial of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Under current law, a conviction in a criminal case would force him to resign. Under the new proposal, his governing Knesset majority could simply override the decision and erase the conviction.

Corruption in Israel is already rampant, ranked 27th of 39 OECD countries, but these proposals go a step too far even for the average cynical Israeli. 

"For the first time in years, Israelis feel a palpable sense of fear for the course their country is taking"

Rallies held in twenty cities throughout the country and more around the world are demanding “save Israeli democracy” and “No to dictatorship” and calling Netanyahu a “crime minister.” For the first time in years, Israelis feel a palpable sense of fear for the course their country is taking.

Despite the movement’s achievements thus far, it’s an open question whether they will maintain their momentum. Israel has a history of similar protests, ranging from Peace Now’s campaign to end the occupation of Palestine, to massive rallies decrying the Sabra and Shatila massacre, to the more recent J14 movement against social and economic inequity.

Most of them failed in their ultimate goal. The political class simply outlasted whatever momentum existed for change. Netanyahu himself is the consummate political tactician who understands how far he can pursue his agenda, and when he needs to compromise.

Behind the campaign to destroy Israel’s democracy

Israelis are just now waking up to a political reality that has already dismantled democracy in other countries in the past decade or so. Haaretz recounts the process of “illiberalisation” in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, interviewing citizens who offered warning signs of fascism and advice about how to confront it.

The most powerful intellectual author of the new Israeli reforms is the US-inspired (and funded) Kohelet Forum. Its legal experts have written the proposed legislation and the speeches by Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud politicians on behalf of it. They’ve ghostwritten articles for Israeli and US media, and coached ministers in their promotional tours. 

Kohelet was founded under the auspices of the US-based Tikvah Fund, a far-right libertarian foundation launched by Roger Hertog. Hertog is a Wall Street billionaire and ardent Trump supporter. Another American Jewish billionaire playing a key role in financing Israel’s legislative “revolution” is Pennsylvania-based investor, Jeffrey Yass.

The leaders of Kohelet, and Netanyahu himself, have had a “romance” with Viktor Orban and his “illiberal democracy.” In fact, a delegation of far-right Israeli leaders (including Netanyahu’s pugnacious son, Yair) visited Hungary last month, lapping up Orban’s brand of one-party rule and absorbing his lessons about dismantling an independent judiciary, educational system and free press.

All these institutions have been “captured” and now answer to Orban’s party stalwarts and promote the ideas and interests of Orban and his party. This is Kohelet’s model for Israel. Netanyahu is its conduit.

The sway of the tech sector

Israel’s anti-government campaign has enlisted the crucial support of its powerful tech sector. Despite previous security crises and social unrest, the Israeli economy has maintained its momentum without skipping a beat, enabling the establishment to weather any challenge confronting the status quo. The tech sector, which accounts for 15% of the workforce, 15% of the overall GDP, and 40% of the nation’s exports, is the engine propelling this.  

Until now, Israel’s CEOs have studiously avoided political engagement. As long as the economic system permitted them to pursue their business goals, they saw no reason to intervene. But something is different this time. Now, they understand that their success is dependent on a stable and consistent legal system that adjudicates commercial disputes fairly and protects intellectual property rights.

Israeli markets have reflected this shift. The Tel Aviv market has lost 10% of its value since the November election, among the poorest performing exchanges in the world. Weekly demonstrations have, for the first time, heard directly from these corporate titans.

"The anti-government movement has had one glaring omission: almost no Israeli Palestinians have participated. Historically, they have not shared in the Israeli economic miracle. For them, there is no democracy to save"

At one of the earliest events, the leader of a technology unicorn, whose company has a $4-billion valuation, announced to the crowd that she was moving all of her corporate funds out of Israel. The founder and CEO of another company, Verbit, also declared that he would leave Israel and refuse to pay taxes to this government.

If foreign investors perceive the country’s legal system as unstable or prone to manipulation, they will look to other countries where their investments will be safer. That’s an outcome that threatens the health of Israel’s tech sector.

Global financial institutions have taken notice. JP Morgan Chase issued a new report warning of an “investment volatility flare-up.” It said the government’s proposals put the economy at risk, while Standard & Poor’s has warned of a possible credit downgrade.

In an unusual departure for top national security officials, former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, a known Netanyahu critic, publicly advocated for a  national general strike to “shut the country down.” Bringing the economy to its knees might be the only way to dramatise in a decisive way the urgency and seriousness of the crisis. 

Where are the Palestinians?

The anti-government movement has had one glaring omission: almost no Israeli Palestinians have participated. Historically, they have not shared in the Israeli economic miracle. For them, there is no democracy to save. They face extraordinary levels of discrimination and deprivation. 

The protests aren’t meant for them. They are meant for Israeli Jews, who have more to lose economically.  This participation gap emphasises what international human rights groups have called Israel’s apartheid system: one reality for Jews and an entirely different, and far worse, reality for Palestinian citizens.

This is the lie that is “Israeli democracy.” In other words, protestors are saving Jewish democracy, not Israeli democracy.

There is another elephant in the room: just as the anti-government protests have swelled, so has a massive upswing in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. 35 were killed last month and more than 200 hundred in 2022.

Last week’s assault on Jenin led to 10 Palestinians murdered. A raid on a Jericho refugee camp over the weekend killed seven Palestinians. In retaliation for the deaths in Jenin, Palestinians mounted several attacks against Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem last month. Seven Israelis died. 

Yet overall, these developments seemed to most Israelis little more than a blip on the horizon. Israel is beset by a schizoid personality. Its security forces pursue a scorched earth approach with blood running in the Palestinian streets. Retaliatory Palestinian attacks follow.

Israeli Jews believe, with a certain cynicism, that this cycle of violence is perpetual. Rather than be active responsible citizens in a thriving democracy, they have ceded their interests and security to the military-intelligence apparatus. They do not question anything done in their name.

"This is the lie that is 'Israeli democracy.' In other words, protestors are saving Jewish democracy, not Israeli democracy"

Contrastingly, economic prosperity affects them and their families personally. Hence the intensity of the response to the government’s proposals. Such bifurcation is at the heart of the dilemma that is contemporary Israel.

There is no sense that Israel’s long-term existence is dependent on ending the occupation of Palestinian land. It is a subject they refuse to and may never confront unless the world compels it.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

Have questions or comments? Email us at:

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.