Barukh Binah
policy fellow, writer and former ambassador

What is going on in Israel?

Last weekend we marked week 23 of our massive public outcries. About a quarter of a million Israelis have once again taken to the streets, the city squares, and major intersections to demonstrate against the regime coup, and so far there have been, cumulatively, about six and a half million protestors since the protests began. The demonstrators include women and men, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi, teenagers alongside their grandparents, secular people alongside kippah-wearers, LGBTQ, high-tech and cyber aficionados, bankers, airforce reserve pilots, reserve commando fighters, retired diplomats, academics, law and justice officials, farmers, artists, writers, former heads of intelligence organizations. In fact, everyone is there, or at least every Israeli patriotic group is represented in the weekly demonstrations.

This is a huge public outcry the likes of which Israel has not known since the 1973 protests following the Yom Kippur War, the huge demonstration in 1982 after the massacre carried out by the Phalanges in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon, or the cost-of-living protest of 2011. In the words of Ehud Manor’s song: “I can’t keep silent in light of how my country has changed her face. I will not stop crying and reminding her in her ears until she opens her eyes “. But, Ehud Manor concluded in his poem, “We have no other land”.

The coming together of the divided liberal center is, oddly enough, Benjamin Netanyahu’s greatest achievement so far. He tries in vain to operate his sixth, faltering, and embarrassingly incompetent government. However, in his efforts to evade justice, he awakened the “great democratic beast,” and it rose up against him. In the Israeli political tradition, the leader of the winning party usually informs the president: “I have succeeded in forming a government.” Well, Netanyahu succeeded in something important indeed, and that is reviving the sense of patriotism of the liberal bloc. He can tell the nation and the world, and quite rightly so, that he has “succeeded” in uniting the Israeli liberal bloc. Nobody had managed to do so until now.

Until recently, we sometimes looked down on our national symbols, but Netanyahu restored our pride in our blue-and-white flag and it has become the standard of the protest; he restored our devotion to our national anthem, Hatikva (The Hope) with all its meaningful lines, and especially the vision it contained to “be a free people in our own land”. Netanyahu has no overriding claim to those symbols of nationhood and he has no right to meddle with them.

So what have we actually had lately? Here is an imperfect selection:

  • Iran is making substantial strides toward military nuclear capability while the prime minister has not yet received the long-sought-after invitation to the White House to discuss this potential menace. Netanyahu’s high rhetoric does not prevent the US from discussing the possibility of a new nuclear understanding with Iran (it should be noted that likewise the settler finance minister, who visited Paris, was not accorded political meetings; all the while the Jewish organizations in the French capital downgraded his meetings or avoided him altogether). This is called “diplomatic prowess”.
  • Saudi Arabia still refrains from realizing Netanyahu’s wet dream of open relations with Israel. Following the “Abraham Accords”, Netanyahu has long boasted about this possibility but instead, Jeddah has approved the establishment of an Iranian embassy after a seven-year lull.
  • We lost three soldiers, including a woman fighter, who fell in the defense of the country on our southern border. We have not heard that the daughter of any of the leaders of ultra-Orthodox politicians is enlisting in the Border Police to fill the void left by the late Sergeant Lia Ben Nun. The Netanyahu government did not even reprimand its ultra-Orthodox elements for covering and hiding the face of Sergeant Ben Nun who fell in their defense, since according to their insufferable approach, it is forbidden to show pictures of women. On the other hand, we did hear inappropriate insinuations about what may have happened, god forbid, in the position guarded by the two fallen soldiers, a man, and a woman.
  • In the Arab-Israeli community, the number of murdered people has just exceeded 100 victims in less than six months, compared with 35 last year, under the “change government”. National Security Minister Ben-Gvir is clearly incapable of handling the problem, settling for yelling at the leading members of the supreme command of the National Police. While his close aide was caught urinating at the scene of the Yafi’a massacre where five Arab individuals were murdered. He had shown no sensitivity or nominal human dignity to the victims and their relations, who were there at the time. Only now has the prime minister woken up to establish a committee to discuss crime levels in the Arab sector.
  • When Defense Minister Gallant just dared to suggest that the government moves too fast with this reform, he was summarily fired by Netanyahu. However, some 100,000 people instantly took to the streets to protest against this move, and Netanyahu was forced to retreat and cancel the firing of Gallant.
  • The fundamentally inexperienced Foreign Minister Cohen saw fit to publicly chastise the Vice President of the United States, the great friend of Israel Kamala Harris, for failing to read and learn the details of the Israeli legal reform before stating the obvious, namely that the judiciary should always be independent. In other words, in his opinion, she did not understand what she was talking about (lesson no. 1 in Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”).
  • Not being able to provide real answers, and apparently, for fear of confronting reality, the prime minister consistently refrained from interviews with the Israeli media. He addresses the international media but his magic touch has been lost, as seen in his June 9, 2023 interview with SKY News. He was challenged on all the points from which he is fleeing: the fall of the shekel, the cost of living, the warnings of the rating agencies, the protests of elite reserve commanders, the so-called judicial reform, the settlements, and other issues.
  • The economy is indeed faltering: The shekel, which was a strong and stable currency for many years, is weakening (from NIS 3.5 to the dollar in January to NIS 3.74 to the dollar in June). The cost of living is rising, and while credit rating agencies are still refraining from directly lowering Israel’s credit rating, they are sending disquieting signals. On the high-tech front, economists and business leaders warn of a looming crisis as most of the new Israeli companies are currently being established in the United States rather than in Israel.
  • At the same time, Netanyahu’s ally and a leading originator of the judicial coup, MK Rothman, grabs (in New York) a megaphone from an activist who annoyed him, and the economy minister’s security detail smashes a protester’s thigh (during a visit to Boston).

What lies ahead in week 24 and beyond? It seems that while we were asleep, the right-wing coalition and its think tank, the Kohelet Forum, prepared a stack of more than 150 bills that, if passed, would change forever the liberal character of Israel and make it similar to countries such as Hungary or Poland that have already shrunk their institutions through legislative processes. Netanyahu and his followers assume that the control of the judicial system is vital to secure his acquittal and if the deluge of illiberal laws is the price, so be it! So they must change the composition of the Supreme Court. In the prevailing “seniority system”, the senior Supreme Court justices will become president of the Supreme Court, owing nothing to politicians, and Netanyahu and his people are not satisfied with this excessive independence.

On Wednesday, June 14, the Knesset is to select its representatives to the Judicial Selection Committee. It remains to be seen whether Knesset members select members of the opposition alongside members of the ruling coalition. Government and opposition equality would undermine Netanyahu’s efforts to take over the system. If they do not succeed they will attempt to influence the composition of the Israel Bar Association, which also has an important role in the selecting of judges and justices.

This is going to be a crucial week in the history of Israel, and this is why hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been taking to the streets with their national flags for 23 weeks, to protest fiercely and ensure that Israel remains a democratic and Jewish state that follows the liberal persuasions of Western countries. That is why next Saturday I will also go out to demonstrate. We will go to the streets in an orderly manner, again and again, and will not give up for as long as it takes, as long as we have not secured Israel’s liberal character.

About the Author
Ambassador (ret.) Barukh Binah is a policy fellow at MITVIM, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. He is also a member of the Foreign Policy Forum and of Commanders for Israel's Security. He has served in a variety of diplomatic positions vis-à-vis the United States, including Spokesman in New York, Consul General in Chicago, Deputy Head of Mission in Washington DC and Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem,  heading the North American Division. He also served as Israel's ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark. in 2017 he published a poetry book, "it only seems like healing", and recently published his book, "Sonia McConnel and other Stories"
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