What’s at stake for Israel?

My first visit to Balfour Street was on July 14. It was Bastille Day, the date when, in 1789, civilians stormed the royal bastion in Central Paris in what became the flashpoint of the French Revolution. In Jerusalem, it was when the protest against Netanyahu gained its momentum. Many thousands, depends on who’s counting, answered a grassroots call to “Come to Balfour,” while local demonstrations erupted in hundreds of intersections and bridges all over the country. Friends watching the night unfold on television told me the sensation was tectonic, as if a quake was unleashed beneath Central Jerusalem. A long-simmering nation was consumed by the shaking.

Israel has been on the boil for months. In March, the country confronted an exploding coronavirus pandemic while still run by an interim government headed by Netanyahu. A stringent country-wide lockdown cut the virus’s spread to as low as ten cases a day, and a patch-work coalition government was formed in May, with Netanyahu and his rival Benny Gantz agreeing to set their rivalry aside to handle the pandemic. But the Netanyahu-Gantz government — the most inflated one in Israel’s history with 33 ministerial positions filled to comply with both sides’ political demands — has failed in dealing with the pandemic. As unemployment rates skyrocketed to an all-time record, zig-zag policies on lockdowns left hundreds of thousands of Israelis jobless, confused and frustrated. Meanwhile, Netanyahu pushed for a controversial annexation of the occupied territories in the West Bank — that has since been buried for a normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates — and asked to convene a special Knesset committee to approve his request for tax breaks. Netanyahu’s arraignment was also postponed, time and again.

By June, the county was ripe for massive unrest, but the protest against Netanyahu ran deeper and longer back than this summer. The protests in Balfour Street erupted in full-force after Amir Haskel, an activist and a former Brigadier General in Israel’s air force, was detained in front of the prime minister’s residence for allegedly blocking a road on June 26. Haskel, who was released from custody the next day, is one of the prominent figures among the “Black Flags” protestors, so called for the flags they’ve been waving in intersections and bridges across Israel. They have been doing it since 2016, when investigations into the premier’s alleged corruption became public.

That was the period that marked a new era in Netanyahu’s premiership, Doron Shultziner, head of the Politics and Communication Department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah College and a scholar of protest movements, told me. The era of a head of government who feels persecuted by his own subjects; whose personal survival is intertwined with his political one. To this Netanyahu, the institutions that are the foundation of Israel’s liberal democracy and thus could limit his powers — the courts, the legislature, and the press — became a nuisance, and therefore, his targets.

Since 2015, Netanyahu-led governments passed laws that have raised serious concerns about their anti-democratic nature. One enacted in 2016 enables the Knesset, Israel’s 120-seat parliament, to dismiss one of its members with a 90-seat majority, turning the legislature into its own ideological enforcer. Professor Mordechai Kremnitzer from The Israel Democracy Institute called it a “severe expression of the weakening of Israel’s democracy.”  In 2018, members of Netanyahu’s Likud party passed the “Basic Law: Israel – the Nation State of the Jewish People,” which ignores the state’s commitment to democracy and minority rights, heralding its Jewish-majority identity instead. More recently, Netanyahu’s coalition contemplated the “Override Clause,” which intends to strip the supreme court of its authority to intervene in, and in some cases upend, legislation it deems as conflicting with Israel’s foundational principles. If that law passes in a future Netanyahu coalition, Shultziner said, it could be the final nail in the coffin of Israel as a liberal democracy.

But beyond legislation, Netanyahu’s rhetoric marked a perversion of the historic relationship between Israel’s leaders and the state. This relationship, defined by the country’s inaugural prime minister David Ben Gurion, is best embodied by the word Mamlachtiut. There isn’t an English equivalent, but the word could be roughly translated as statehood-ness. Its essence is that the leader’s telos should be the country’s common good. A Mamlachti leader must exhibit unrelenting deference to the state’s institutions, even at personal costs, and lead the country by personal example. Mamlachtiut is not a codex of rules, but, as Ben Gurion believed, a moral compass. For many Israelis, it’s a central tenet to the Israel they believe in. Mamlachtiut largely survived the country’s belligerent history, and has transcended political camps. Menachem Begin, the lionized leader of Netanyahu’s Likud party who became Israel’s first right-wing prime minister in 1977, was an ardent believer of the principle, as were his successors. But Netanyahu’s rhetoric has inverted the equation of Mamlachtiut.

“There clearly are forces that are trying to erode the Mamlachti institutions of Israel that the country has labored over 70 years to build up,” David Makovsky, director of the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, told me. No longer a defender of the state’s checks and balances but their most prominent attacker, Netanyahu has abdicated Mamlachtiut for the imperative of his political survival. For a democracy already in “high stress,” as Makovsky put it, this blow, on top of anti-democratic laws, demographic changes, and growing religious extremism, could be lethal. “We are an election away from an autocracy,” Shultziner told me. He has been protesting every week with his family in a junction near his home.

Democracies today seldomly die in violent coups or revolutions. Instead, they metamorphosize. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt called it a process in baby steps. Netanyahu’s repeated attacks of Israel’s checks and balances and the sway of anti-democratic legislation make this process hard to ignore in today’s Israel. With the largest party running as an alternative to Netanyahu now in his coalition, as Israel’s democratic framework is put to the test, this is the juncture when popular protests gain their significance. “The glass half full is that we see the emergence of a fierce civil society that manages to set an agenda,” Shultziner told me. “The most fervent opposition to Netanyahu now is that which is opposite his home.”

About the Author
Jonathan is a political science student at Princeton University. He is originally from the northern town of Nahariya, where he was born and raised as a son of immigrants from the Soviet Union. This partly explains his interests in the complexities of the Israeli identity and the state of Israel's democracy.
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