Now in its 20th week, the public protests against the Israeli government’s policies have been resolutely enduring as the government advances more and more unacceptable plans. Last night’s demonstrations were a typical example. Approximately 100.000 people protested in Tel Aviv and another 50,000 in about 150 locations. Both sides hold broader concerns beyond the initial focus on judicial reform. The presence of a large pro-government rally on April 27 which demonstrated enthusiastic support for obdurate politicians such as Ben Gvir Smotrich, Rotman and Levin illustrates that it is not solely a public-versus-government conflict, but rather a country divided. This raises questions about whether the Israeli government will persist with its controversial agenda and whether the protesters will eventually capitulate.
Prior to the current government, many supporters felt frustrated by a perceived lenient government policy supported by the courts on the Palestinian security issues along with restraints on expansion of West Bank settlements. In addition, they believe that there is a bias leading to exclusively Ashkenazi judges which must therefore be counterbalanced. Some supporters also desire a stronger religious presence in the country, with a few even yearning for a theocracy. Lastly, many hold the view that winning an election entitles the government to pursue its agenda and use government resources as it sees fit, even if it comes at a financial burden or negative consequences. They appear to support the view that the government is in power to promote its agenda when possible and only run the government when necessary. For them, ideological values including expansion of West Bank settlements and more religious impositions should be pursued regardless of the resulting financial burden or negative ramifications. Pro-government supporters, having obtained an electoral majority, feel vindicated that there is finally a government in power that aligns with their agenda and will do their bidding.
The protesters views:
In contrast, the majority of Israelis are opposed to the government’s proposed policies. They come from diverse sectors such as finance, arts, and the military, and prioritize contributing to a pluralistic and well-functioning country. Many have been leaders in their field. They are, for the most part, the working, tax paying, military serving public and therefore represent the essential backbone of Israel’s functioning economy, culture, and military.
In addition to the weekly massive protests, two notable outcries occurred last month related to Memorial Day (commemorating Israel’s fallen soldiers) and Independence Day. The protesters had asked that the Memorial Day ceremonies remain apolitical by having government politicians refrain from speaking. While some politicians voluntarily cooperated, the government refused to accommodate this request. In particular, one demeaning episode occurred when minister Ben Gvir insisted on speaking at the ceremony held in Beersheva. Instead of it being a solemn ceremony, a kerfuffle occurred at the cemetery itself between pro and anti Ben Gvir proponents. Families who had come to give their respects for their lost family members ended up being drawn into a political squall.
With regards to celebrating Independence Day, rather than participate in the government organized ceremony, an alternative non-government ceremony held in Tel Aviv offered the Israeli public the opportunity to celebrate Independence Day in a format without the government auspices. Until these incidents Prime Minister Netanyahu’s approach had been to dismiss the influence of the protests as insignificant. The ongoing mass protests, the Memorial and the Independence Day outcries concretely affirmed that Prime Minister Netanyahu has failed in his attempts to assert a veneer of “business as usual” and with its associated implication that the protests can be ignored.
The situation today and its consequences:
The policy changes implemented by the government have already caused an economic downturn, despite government ministers denying the negative impact. Bravado unsubstantiated declarations statements such as “The experts are wrong”, do not change the reality of our predicament.
There has been a drastic deterioration in Israel’s international standing including the fact that for the first time, an American president, who despite being a long-standing friend of Israel, has refused to invite the newly elected Prime Minister to visit and instead has publicly admonished him.
Since Ben Gvir has become Security minister and taken a hard line in grappling with Palestinian violence, the violence has only worsened, with many of the victims being West Bank Jewish residents, his base support. It has become starkly clear that his simplistic assumption that if only Israel took a harder line, Palestinian terror could be controlled has so far been shown to be an illusion. Neither is there control over non terrorist caused security, with the murder rate being almost 3 times higher than before Ben Gvir was appointed minister. Competence is not his strong point.
The situation has given enemies of Israel, such as Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, cause for celebration.
The long-term Implications:
The long-term implications of the government’s overarching policies are profound. One relates to implementing a policy which will permanently exempt Haredim from serving in the armed forces and at the same time receive increasing financial handouts. As their numbers are burgeoning, even if the liberal public does not revolt, we are not far from a looming double crisis point of not having enough money to cover standard government expenses and having too few soldiers serving in the armed forces. This is an illustrative example of ideology and accommodating narrow coalition party demands done at the expense of the country’s well-being and future. One only needs to glance over the proposed budget to appreciate that rather than encouraging production and helping the needy, we are rapidly heading in the direction of having a system that increasingly taxes work and subsidizes non-work and ideological pursuits.
Enforcing further religious restrictions and demands on the secular liberal public will only fuel hostility. Most nonobservant and non-Jewish Israelis are tolerant and accommodating towards observant Jews but don’t want to be coerced into living an observant life and are only willing to subsidize religious people and their institutions to a certain point.
Moreover, expanding West Bank settlements, while important to some, will be costly, unethical, and likely to entrench unacceptable discrimination against Palestinians.
Divisions and challenges:
The divisions within Israeli society can be broadly categorized as right versus center and left, working and military-serving public versus facilitating unproductiveness, religious impositions versus a secular and tolerant approach, a rote hard line security approach versus sober cautiousness, wishful thinking about ideological goals while disregarding their negative ramifications, democratic accountability versus unrestrained government autonomy, and pluralism versus parochial causes.
Where are the critical voices within the pro-government ranks? They all appear to prefer a government not attaining their goals but who is on their side of the political spectrum. There have been no significant religious groups questioning Haredi exploitation; no representatives of a greater Israel delineating the dangers of expanding settlements; no expression of concern that the economy is in a down spin and that the country is unraveling. There has been no clarion call; only silence.
Where to go from here?
It is the public rather than the disunited opposition politicians who are leading the protests. Just as the protesters have united, so too should the opposition parties. They should put their individual differences aside, put a moratorium on competing with one another and coordinate their protests to be a stronger counter political force. As potent as the protest movement is, it may not be enough to stop the impending deluge without involving some support from the other side. Change for the better will only occur when some government politicians and their supporting public stand up and oppose their disastrous government policy and manner of running the government.