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‘Whose demonstration was bigger?’ is not necessarily the question

A strong show of support on the street and even a 64-seat Knesset majority don't make the proposed overhaul right
Participants wave flags during a rally in support of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Participants wave flags during a rally in support of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, Thursday, April 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

After months of pro-democracy protests in Israel, which saw hundreds of thousands of people turn out against the gutting of the country’s judiciary, supporters of the proposed court overhaul took the opportunity to make their presence known. On Thursday night, as many as 200,000 Israelis turned out at events in Jerusalem to rally for the judicial reforms.

This was a genuine show of force for the Israeli government’s campaign against the court system. The protests are a reminder that there is also a real constituency for diluting the judiciary’s powers. Yet the size of the protests on either side is not their most salient feature. Rather, what stands out the most is how starkly they illustrate the divide in Israeli politics. At Thursday’s anti-court events, successive ministers and other speakers reminded the crowd that the government had won a majority in the Knesset. “The nation voted for judicial reform,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin told demonstrators. “Here on this stage are 64 Knesset seats to correct the injustice.”

So it is all about numbers. This is the crux of the debate over Israel’s future. There are many powerful motivations behind the proposed judicial reforms. As Susie Gelman outlined in January, the (inaccurate) perception that the court is deferential to Palestinian petitioners and the more accurate inverse view, that the court is not always deferential to Israeli Jews, were essential in animating many settlers and religious Zionists around the cause of a Supreme Court overhaul. However, at an even more fundamental level, there is a misalignment about the meaning of democracy.

Though they opportunistically leverage the language of democratic values, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir probably don’t even believe in a majoritarian democracy in which whatever side wins 50% plus one gets a free hand in governing (Smotrich has spoken openly and favorably of a biblically inspired theocracy). But I don’t doubt the sincerity of many of the thousands of people who voted for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and other right-wing parties and believe that proceeding with whatever policy the elected government of Israel chooses is an expression of the democratic will.

This is a very shallow reading of democracy, however. Of course, there is the potential for the many to trample the rights of the few – or for the side with more seats to simply vote to cancel elections or dismiss opposition lawmakers. Elections are a hollow exercise if citizens have no real recourse to address government policies. Invoking a legislative majority also paves the way for serious institutional instability. There is a reason American constitutional amendments require two-thirds support in both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states in order to be adopted: if a simple majority were the only bar to clear, the structure of the United States government would change every two to four years.

Can such a foundational gap be bridged? I’m skeptical. As I and many other Americans learned the hard way, it is difficult enough to change the mind of someone who believes their candidate won when, in fact, they lost. In Israel, Netanyahu and his partners won. Opponents of the judicial reform like to point out that the coalition came to power with fewer than half of all ballots cast in the last Knesset election, but that doesn’t change the fact that the right legitimately came to power according to Israel’s electoral system, a system all parties understood well before election day (recall, also, that Israel’s previous two prime ministers did not come from the largest party in the Knesset, but that does not invalidate their victory).

But just as the center-left’s claim to a majority of popular votes isn’t proof of the righteousness of their cause, the right’s control of 64 Knesset mandates is not a mandate to do anything they please now that they hold the reins. On the streets, numbers matter in terms of telegraphing political support and boosting morale. Yet there are countries where the dictator is genuinely popular, and probably still would be in the absence of coercive government actions. They’re still dictators. The Israeli court overhaul would be a dangerous proposal if one member of Knesset supported it or if all 120 did. Simply put: numbers are not a virtue by themselves.

Read more articles like this on Israel Policy Exchange, Israel Policy Forum’s outlet for expert commentary and analysis on U.S.-Israel relations, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli politics and society, and the regional politics of the Middle East.

About the Author
Evan Gottesman is an advisor at Israel Policy Forum. His work has been published in Foreign Policy, World Politics Review, The National Interest, Haaretz, The Diplomat, The Forward, and +972 Magazine. Evan has briefed numerous members of Congress and senior legislative staff on US-Israel relations and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has been quoted and cited in The Washington Post, USA Today, and VICE News. He is currently a master’s candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.