Over the past year, Israel has witnessed an extraordinary wave of non-violent protests, involving hundreds of thousands of activists from across society. The extensive demonstrations were triggered by a judicial overhaul announced by the Israeli government in early 2023.
The government passed into law in July 2023 the first planned change of the overhaul – a so-called “reasonableness” bill. This removed the power of the country’s supreme court (and lower courts) to cancel government decisions deemed “extremely unreasonable”.
The proposed judicial overhaul, which was designed to weaken the judicial branch, plunged Israel into one of the most serious internal crises in its history. An unprecedented pro-democracy civil movement mounted an extensive anti-government campaign aimed at stopping the judicial overhaul.
Israel protests: Netanyahu delays judicial reforms over fears of ‘civil war’ – but deep fault-lines threaten future of democracy
Each week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis demonstrated. These included several groups of reservists serving in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) – including pilots and combat units – who refused to report to duty unless the government scrapped the judicial overall.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, presided over this internal turmoil. Yet rather than seeking a political compromise, his strategy was to sow political and social division.
Netanyahu and his ministers denounced the pro-democracy demonstrators as “traitors”, “anarchists”, and the “privileged elite”. In fact the protesters came from all walks of life: tech workers, lawyers, teachers, professionals, as well as members of the security services.
The pro-democracy campaigners, in turn, have referred to Netanyahu as the “crime minister”. This aims to highlight that the prime minister’s newfound impetus to weaken Israel’s judiciary arose after he became embroiled in a criminal trial. He faces multiple corruption charges: bribery, fraud and breach of trust, stemming from three separate cases.
Campaigners also repeatedly charged the government with violating the social contract with its citizens. They accuse the ultra-orthodox bloc, which Netanyahu relies on to hold on to power as part of his coalition, of using the judicial overhaul to preserve its economic interests and political influence and of permanently exempting ultra-orthodox males from serving in the IDF.
Social resilience and political strains
The murderous attacks launched by Hamas on October 7, which triggered the Israel-Hamas 2023 war, have had a unifying effect on Israeli society. The social divisions that marked the confrontations over the judicial overhaul have given way to a rare moment of social unity and rallying around the flag.
One of the key organisations opposing Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, Brothers in Arms, has now turned its entire logistical, financial and human effort to support the war effort. It is also helping the communities that were devastated after more than 1,300 Israelis were murdered by Hamas terrorists and more than 230 kidnapped.
Meanwhile, several religious Jews volunteered with the ultra-orthodox Zaka organisation, which retrieves bodies and body parts after terror attacks. They have been tasked with the terrible duty of identifying victims.
But while Israeli society has pulled together, the country’s leadership has not risen to the occasion. Given the monumental military and intelligence failure Israel experienced on October 7, the Netanyahu government entered the war with a severe legitimacy deficit. And yet it took the prime minister five days to form an emergency government. This brought in Benny Ganz, former defence minister and the leader of the National Unity party.
Gantz will serve alongside Netanyahu and defence minister Yoav Gallant in the “war management cabinet”. Former chief of staff with the IDF, Gadi Eisenkot (National Unity Party), and Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs – and a close Netanyahu ally – will sit as observers.
The formation of the emergency government does not amount to a National Unity Government, which many Israelis had hoped for. Yair Lapid, the leader of the main opposition party, Yesh Atid, has so far opted not to join the government. He has justified his decision on two grounds: Netanyahu’s insistence on keeping the extreme right parties in the government and the proposal to form a double security cabinet without establishing clear lines of authority.
Netanyahu’s day of reckoning?
Whereas the ongoing political divide is significant, the more serious tension seems to be between Netanyahu and the security-military establishment. Since the October 7 attacks, heads of Israel’s key security organisations – the IDF and the intelligence service Shin Bet – have acknowledged their responsibility for the multilayered system failure that enabled the Hamas offensive.
In fact, Netanyahu has refused to assume any responsibility. Worse still, as the Israeli ground invasion into Gaza deepened, Netanyahu wrote on Twitter (now renamed X) at 0100 on October 29:
In contradiction to the lying claims: Under no circumstances and at no stage was Prime Minister Netanyahu warned about Hamas intending to go to war … Every defence official, including the heads of military intelligence and the Shin Bet [Israel’s security agency], believed Hamas was deterred and sought accommodation. This was the assessment that was presented time and time again to the prime minister and the cabinet by all defence officials and the intelligence community up to the outbreak of the war.
The prime minister later deleted the message and apologised. But crucially, he did not say that what he tweeted was wrong. This leaves the strong impression that Netanyahu is still highly invested in passing the blame for Hamas’s attacks to secure his political and personal future. The fear is that this may affect his decisions in relation to the war.
This concern has prompted calls from business leaders, columnists, diplomats and former security personnel, to remove Netanyahu and replace the government, possibly through a constructive vote of no-confidence. Netanyahu is hanging on, for now, but his day of reckoning will come, possibly even before the Israel-Hamas 2023 war is over.