Laura Wharton
Jerusalem City Councilor, adjunct lecturer in political science

From Demonstrations to Democracy

Photo credit: Shai Benjamin
Photo credit: Shai Benjamin

The Pro-Democracy demonstrations that have now been going on in Israel for more than half a year have been remarkably successful by any measure. Not only did the Prime Minister reverse his firing of the Minister of Defense, not only was much legislation delayed or shelved, but the outpouring of support for the protests has been inspiring.  Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating weekly, marching, and encouraging the public to stand up and fight to preserve democracy from an onslaught of legislation led by a coalition of messianic, ultra-right wing and corrupt politicians seeking to change the nature of the country. Many of the laws are meant to try to strengthen the hold of ministers on their posts despite their convictions for a range of crimes including incitement to violence, support of terror, and corruption.  All the protests have taken place accompanied by an ongoing call for non-violence, which has seen to almost zero injuries to the police or anyone else, despite some incidents of violence towards the protestors themselves.

Yet despite the powerful turnout, press attention, very supportive public opinion polls, and unprecedented backing by key sectors of Israeli society such as the army, the business sector, academia,  and cultural figures, Israel’s government ministers seem more determined than ever to barrel through laws that will change the democratic structure of the regime. If they proceed as they claim they intend to, Israel will indeed be a deeply flawed democracy. Ironically, the more successful and massive the protests are and become, the more desperate the government is to move quickly and in a most extreme manner. Those in power now, as is seen in every poll, know that if they lose control the public will not re-elect them. The current coalition has lost at least 10 of its current 64 seats, and thus its majority. It will do anything to maintain its grip because it is unlikely to get a second chance.

Having succeeded in galvanizing the public, but also in terrifying the government, how can the protestors now translate their successes into toppling the government, or at least stopping the tsunami of game-changing legislation? The supporters of democracy have at least three main avenues for proceeding, and ideally they will move forward on all of them.

First, they have to continue to mobilize and energize their base. Most Israelis did not vote for the current government: because of the anomalities of Israeli elections more than 300,000 votes, for what would have gone to what became the opposition, were not counted because the parties did not pass the minimum vote threshold (had the parties united the opposition would be in power today, yet another reason for the outpouring of demands for unity).  These voters, who are in fact a majority, were disappointed and many are today outraged. But that is not enough. The demonstrators have to offer them support, and more importantly — hope. A good sense of togetherness, common purpose, and optimism  will keep the masses out and active. Their energies have to be channeled so that no one is lost to despair.

Second, they have to focus on dismantling the conglomeration of parties, rife with contradictions, that is running the country. Netanyahu himself, as well as Der’i and other ministers facing legal problems and investigations, are most interested in castrating the Supreme Court and taking control over the committee that appoints judges. Yet to date, the Ultra-Orthodox parties have not concerned themselves with these issues. They have focused primarily on passing the “Torah Studies Law”, promised them in the coalition agreements, which will guarantee that only other peoples’ children, but not their Ultra-Orthodox ones, will be drafted. This law will give formal, legal recognition of the growing trend, whereby more than 85% of 18-year-olds in the general population serve in the army, while now less than 10% of the Ultra-Orthodox do. This proposal is an outrage to most Israelis, and an embarrassment to members of the Likud, some of whom actively lobbied against it under previous governments. Smotrich and Ben Gvir are focused on expanding settlements, including ones illegal according to Israeli law, and in symbolic gestures such as praying on the Temple Mount; this is anathema to the Ultra-Orthodox as well as to many mainstream religious Jews. Avi Maoz, a relgious homophobe, and Itzhak Pindrus, an Ultra-Orthodox MK who has said that the gay community is more dangerous and more of a threat to Israel than Hamas, ire the albeit small liberal minority of the Likud, including the openly gay speaker of the Knesset. Further legislation of many sorts is likely to widen the cracks in the government, and it should be a goal of the opposition to expose and deepen them.

Third, the demonstrators and the opposition with whom it should be working, must widen the scope of the protestors. The goal should not be simply to eke out a majority in the next election, but to harness the many parts of the population that are adversely effected not only by the tumult but by the current policies themselves. Young people who will be finding it harder to find a job because of the warped budget priorities aimed at helping yeshiva students, who will be unable to afford housing and will see the promises not met regarding pre-school funding, will all be looking for alternatives. Those living in the geographic periphery are discovering that benefits are all directed to the territories and not to Israel proper. Former Ultra-Orthodox who are unemployable because of the disastrous education system, immigrants facing frustration and disappointment, and of course Arab citizens who in addition to institutionalized prejudice are now victims of hate crimes and above all,  violence ignored by the police, are sizable populations whose votes could significantly shift the political balance. Even the police themselves, overworked, underpaid, unappreciated and subject to the whims of a minister with a criminal record, should be looked at as a group that could be drawn into the camp of citizens concerned with the country’s future, seeking responsible and stable government.

It will apparently be some time before a new and better government is put in place, and anyone seeking a better and more democratic future for Israel has a lot of challenges to face. At the same time, there is great potential for change, a remarkable group of leaders and concerned citizens that has emerged, and many fronts on which to work; those outlined here are but a few. With people as dedicated, talented, and principled as have joined in the protests, I strongly believe Israel still has a bright future ahead.

About the Author
Dr Laura Wharton is a member of Jerusalem's City Council as a representative of Meretz and an adjunct lecturer in the political science department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Born in the U.S., she immigrated to Israel after receiving a B.A. in the government department of Harvard University and then served a full term in the Israel Defense Forces. She subsequently completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at Hebrew University. For research that later served as the basis for her book "Is the Party Over? How Israel Lost Its Social Agenda" (Yad Levi Eshkol, 2019) she was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in Memory of Levi Eshkol. She is a mother of two and has been living in Jerusalem for more than two decades.
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