As of 27/03/2023, protests in Israel against the proposed reforms of the judicial system by Prime Minister Netanyahu have escalated. Following the sacking of a Defense Minister who showed opposition to the proposed reforms, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets. On 27 March, striking workers joined the protests and declared a nationwide strike against the proposed reforms.
Protests and strikes throughout Israel. Deliberate disruptive acts have been employed, including blocking main major thoroughfares, such as Highway 20 in Tel Aviv. Highway 20 is an intra city highway that runs through all main roads in the city. Confrontations between the police and the protestors occur when protests are being overly disruptive. Clashes between protestors and Netanyahu supporters are also widespread.
Freezing of judicial reform bill. After the freezing of the vote on the judicial reform bill until the end of parliamentary recess, it is expected that the protests will continue until the end of April and the beginning of May without significant reversal of the proposed reforms. Supporters are visible on the streets for the proposed reforms. Members of the government are putting pressure on Netanyahu to drop the bill, but he is also being pressured by his coalition partner to carry out the reforms. Without them, he could be vulnerable politically.
Judicial reforms are seen as an attack on Israel’s democracy. The anti-judicial reform protests in Israel began on 07/03/2023, during which 20,000 protesters went to the streets to express their concerns on the plans of Netanyahu’s government. The protests continued throughout the course of January, February and March, with often over 100,000 people on the streets. The judicial reforms would give the government more power while decreasing the power of the Supreme Court. For example, it would become easier for the government to overrule court decisions by just needing one single majority vote in the parliament. The opponents of the judicial reforms have called them an attempt to weaken the judicial system and an attack on the democracy of Israel.
The reforms are widely supported by Israel’s right wing community. Despite the critique, there is also strong support for the judicial overhaul, especially by the right-wing community in Israel. They mainly see the supreme court as a constrainment to building a more religious and nationalist state. The judicial reform would make it more difficult for the supreme court to block certain plans that are in line with those religious and nationalist beliefs, such as the creation of more Israeli settlements in the West Bank and a removal of the military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews.
The United States, who has been a partner of Israel for a long time, sees Israel as a vital security partner in the Middle East. Many U.S. officials see sustaining good ties with Israel as a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The U.S and Israel also rely upon each other with respect to intelligence sharing and national security. Throughout the course of May, U.S. President Biden emphasized his role as a friend of Israel when talking about the unrest in the country. He has been careful with criticizing the judicial overhaul and only briefly expressed his concerns about the situation. However, on 28/03/2023 Biden finally urged Netanyahu to walk away from the judicial reforms. This request by Biden was met with a strong reaction by Netanyahu, who stated that the decisions that Israel makes would “not be based on pressures from abroad”.
Israeli settler and Palestinian unrest. During the month of March there have been a string of attacks from Palestinian terrorists on settler communities and also retaliatory attacks from settlers on Palestinian villages, like on 26/03/2023 in the Palestinian village of Huwara, where dozens of cars were set on fire and people were injured.
Airstrikes on Syria. In the past month there have been a number of airstrikes on Syrian soil against targets affiliated with the Islamic Republican Guard Corps of Iran. Israel has not openly admitted that it has executed the airstrikes but it is widely believed that the Israeli Air Force is behind them. Israel blames Iran for sponsoring, training and arming Palestinian and Hezbollah terrorists. One of the airstrikes targeted Aleppo Airport in the north of Syria causing nationwide disruption for airline companies. Damascus Airport has been the target of Israeli strikes in February. The latest Israeli airstrike was on 29/03/2023 and targeted Damascus. The area close to the border of Syria, including Lebanon and Israel, is also known for its jamming and disruption of avionics in commercial airliners.
Analysis and Implications:
Protests in Israel will likely continue in the future. Even though Netanyahu delayed the reforms to ‘give time for a broad agreement’, it is the question whether such an agreement will be reached any time soon. The protests clearly show the divide between people who are in favor of a more religious and nationalistic Israel on one hand and people who want a more modern and democratic Israel on the other hand. The tensions between those two camps will likely remain persistent within Israel’s society, which increases the risk of the continuation of protests regardless of the final decision that Netanyahu will make with respect to the judicial reforms.
Israel’s right-wing community will push for the implementation of the judicial reforms. A significant number of people from the right-wing community participated in a counter-protest on 27/03/2023 to show their support for the judicial reforms. In some locations these counter-protests led to violent clashes with the people that protested against the reforms. It is likely that the right-wing community will not support the recent decision of Netanyahu to postpone the judicial reforms and that this community will also be unhappy if the government decides to listen to the critiques on the judicial reforms. This could then lead to violent protests from Israel’s right-wing community.
The United States is limited in its influence over the situation. The United States finds itself in a difficult position with respect to the judicial reforms and the tensions within Israel. Speaking up against Netanyahu is seen as a big risk because of U.S. dependence on the country with respect to intelligence, national security and stability of the overall region. Netanyahu seems aware that this dependency gives him the ability to reject any of the already small amount of critique on the judicial reforms by the U.S. It is thus unlikely that the U.S. will be able to push Netanyahu towards a revision or total abandonment of the judicial reforms.
Palestinian violence likely to increase. Even though there has been an uptick in violence coming from Palestinian terrorist organizations it is not certain that it has anything to with the judicial overhaul. There is however a likely chance that terrorist groups will want to take advantage of the situation.
Response by the protestors. It is likely that the pro-democracy protests will continue until the reform bill has been totally withdrawn. There is a chance that there will be more violence at these protests if the bill is not withdrawn. The response from the right-wing and nationalist pro-reform protestors is likely to increase and may involve a rise in violence toward anti-reform protestors.
The continuation of the protests and the refusal of the government to withdraw the reform bill is likely to increase the political instability of the country. If prime-minister Netanyahu decides to withdraw the bill there is a likelihood that his government will fall. If he does not withdraw the bill it is likely that the country will come to a standstill due to protests and strikes across the board.
It is likely that the continuation of the protests will have an impact on national security. Hundreds of reservists from the Army, Navy and Airforce have refused service and have gone on strike to protest the reform bill. The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) are heavily reliant on the reservists. Without them there will be gaps in the national security defence and it is likely that Palestinian terrorist organizations will try to take advantage of the situation.
The situation in Israel is volatile after the government of Netanyahu has introduced a judicial reform bill that will weaken the influence of the Supreme Court on the government’s decision making. This bill has led to mass protests and strikes across the country shutting down highways and, for a short time, Ben-Gurion Airport. Due to the strikes of a large number of IDF reservists the national security could be in jeopardy if Palestinian terrorist groups decide to take advantage of the situation.