Israel Is Somewhere It’s Never Been Before

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to weaken Israel’s democracy—and the public’s stunning resistance—has unsettled the country.

By , a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and , a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.
A protester walks down a street at night holding an Israeli flag.
A protester walks down a street at night holding an Israeli flag.
A protester waves an Israeli flag during a demonstration against the Israeli government’s controversial judicial reform bill in Tel Aviv, Israel, on March 29. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

It took three months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets, and a general strike that saw flights grounded at Israel’s main international airport and the country’s embassies and consulates around the world shuttered—but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once thought to be the savviest and strongest politician in the land, stumbled badly, perhaps fatally.

It took three months, hundreds of thousands of Israelis in the streets, and a general strike that saw flights grounded at Israel’s main international airport and the country’s embassies and consulates around the world shuttered—but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, once thought to be the savviest and strongest politician in the land, stumbled badly, perhaps fatally.

It’s hard to exaggerate the magnitude of Netanyahu’s strategic blunder in imagining he could unilaterally—even with a Knesset majority—destroy an independent judiciary and alter the character of the country. His preemptive firing of his defense minister, a career military man, for daring to speak out against the judicial reforms reinforced the impression that the prime minister has placed his personal politics above the security of the nation—an image reflected in the protests of thousands of Israeli military reservists.

Should Netanyahu push forward and replace his fired defense minister with a more compliant minister, one wonders whether many in the Israel Defense Forces would agree to follow the new appointee’s lead. The protests were given tremendous legitimacy as a result of the reservists’ participation and the pressure on the prime minister from the country’s intelligence and security chiefs.

In the end, some members of Netanyahu’s own Likud party and the ultra-religious parties in his governing coalition were also pressing him to stand down. Indeed, it appeared from the diverse makeup of the demonstrators—a veritable cross-section of Israeli Jews and some Israeli Arabs from all sectors of the public—that the prime minister was taking on Israeli society as a whole.

Clearly, he has ignored former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s wise words: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.”

Netanyahu’s political career is by no means finished, and his coalition shows no signs of an imminent collapse. But his political reputation is tarnished, his coalition’s effort to effect a judicial revolution has taken a serious hit, and he now has a trust deficit with the Biden administration.

Israeli politics will remain very unsettled as the full impact of what has occurred sets in. And security challenges loom. But one thing is already clear: Netanyahu’s abortive effort to weaken Israel’s democracy, if not redefine the country’s character, and the public’s stunning resistance have taken Israel to a place it’s never been before. Here are four important takeaways from this whole drama—and what is likely to come next.

No. 1. It’s Not Over.

Both of us have had enough experience dealing with Netanyahu not to count him out. He is prime minister and controls (at least most of) Likud, the country’s largest and most cohesive political party. And he’s more determined than any Israeli politician to stay in power and has clearly demonstrated he’ll go to extreme lengths others would not to do so.

Although Netanyahu has temporarily paused on pushing through his judicial reforms, he has also made clear he’ll keep moving the bills through the Knesset after the Passover recess ends in May. “One way or another we will restore the balance between the authorities that have been lost,” he said in a speech on March 27. Even before his announcement of the reforms’ pause, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee—one of the reforms’ key architects—readied the judicial appointments law for a final vote at any moment.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who has tried without success to find a compromise to end the crisis, has convened talks between the parties. But perhaps as a sign that Netanyahu isn’t serious about compromise, none of the key lieutenants who designed his judicial legislation plans are involved in the negotiations.

With zero trust or confidence in the prime minister, demonstrators are taking no chances and plan to keep up the pressure in the streets. Indeed, a new and unpredictable factor may well have emerged on Israel’s political scene: the creation of a grassroots, populist movement that has already demonstrated its durability and power. Whether it can sustain itself and organize to effect lasting political change remains to be seen. But it’s a clear signal not just to Netanyahu but to politicians across the board that it has power that can no longer be ignored.

No. 2. This Isn’t the Same Netanyahu. 

Perhaps the most significant and puzzling factor in the ongoing crisis is the apparent change in the prime minister’s persona and behavior. Long a champion of an independent judiciary, there’s little doubt that something has altered his former distaste for risk-taking and recklessness. Despite his often hard-line rhetoric, Netanyahu has historically been risk-averse and cautious by nature, especially when it comes to either war or peacemaking. He has more often than not been indecisive, with a tendency to temporize—taking one step forward, a step and a half back, and then coming out somewhere in between.

Netanyahu has always prided himself in the ability to triangulate, to read the political real estate correctly and stay within the broad outlines of what the public might tolerate. This has all dramatically changed. Anshel Pfeffer, a senior columnist for Haaretz and Netanyahu biographer who has studied him for years, argued Netanyahu’s recklessness would never have happened to “the old Bibi” and described his current behavior as “a flabbergasting failure” at things he is usually good at. The former Israel Bank chief Karnit Flug, who worked closely with Netanyahu to stabilize and grow Israel’s economy, similarly said she could not understand how Netanyahu dismissed or ignored warnings from experts about the economic and security dangers of pushing his judicial reform juggernaut.

What has altered Netanyahu’s behavior can only remain a source of speculation. Is it his ongoing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust? Or is it, as former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak argued in a recent FP Live interview, the consequences of a quest for absolute power that corrupts absolutely? Or perhaps it’s the influence of Netanyahu’s closed circle of advisors and his family—especially his son Yair—who trade in conspiracy theories and paranoia?

Whatever the cause, Netanyahu has produced perhaps the gravest internal crisis in Israel’s history. As Pfeffer writes: “This is Netanyahu like he’s never been before. Gone is the risk-averse and pragmatic prime minister who even his rivals admitted didn’t ‘play games with national security.’ Benjamin Netanyahu at 73 is now the pyromaniac-in-chief of a government of arsonists prepared to set the country alight just so they can bulldoze the hated judiciary and establish their own hegemony.” Whether he can change course remains to be seen.

No. 3. The Occupation Remains a Tinderbox.

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, long seen as among the most consequential threats to Israel’s long-term security and well-being, has been absent from demonstration discourse. Leftists and other critics have called out the cynicism of demonstrations that demand democracy inside Israel but ignore the Israeli government’s fundamentally anti-democratic policies and actions toward Palestinians and systematic discrimination against Arab citizens of Israel.

For the demonstrators, keeping these two issues separate has been a critical tactic to maintain cohesion among a group that includes many conservative Israelis, including some who live in Israeli settlements. Merging the causes of judicial overhaul and the occupation would create serious fissures among the demonstrators.

The question, however, is whether the democratic impulses driving the demonstrations can carry over into a national campaign to end the occupation or, at least, promote equal rights for Palestinians. The Israeli peace camp went silent after the Second Intifada (and might remain silent if another intifada, or uprising, erupts), but this new manifestation of populist engagement might convince peace activists to reengage.

One hopeful sign is that some demonstrators have adopted the slogan “democracy for all,” suggesting a possible linkage between the domestic debate and the occupation. But this doesn’t represent the views of the vast majority of the protestors. In fact, there were reports of protestors carrying Palestinian flags who were attacked by other protestors during the demonstrations.

If and when the domestic situation calms down, the existential threat to Israel’s social and political fabric—long-term occupation and no pathway out—may return to the fore. Even before that, the possibility of another Palestinian intifada looms large, born of mounting frustration and anger among younger Palestinians. Without a serious commitment either to separation into two states or democracy for everyone in the area, the protests over judicial reform will seem meaningless.

Should interest in peace revive among a significant segment of the Israeli population, there will be difficult choices to assess. The two-state solution is at least moribund, if not dead, given the spread of Israeli settlements and the growth in the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The nascent movement for equal rights is seen by some as a thin cover for a one-state solution, an outcome that almost all Israelis would likely reject. Creative thinking about peace has atrophied in recent years, and it is hard to see what political pathway can be developed that meets the minimum requirements of the two parties. At a minimum, then, the slogan of “democracy for all” can serve to revive the pursuit of creative thinking about peace.

With judicial reform at least temporarily stymied, though, there’s a real danger that Netanyahu’s coalition partners who are determined to annex most of the West Bank in everything but name will intensify their efforts. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s minister of national security, stayed in the prime minister’s coalition only after receiving a green light to establish a national guard under his direct control, which some fear will become his own private militia to be wielded in the West Bank or in the mixed cities where Israeli Jews and Arabs interact. With tensions already high in the West Bank and settler violence increasing, it wouldn’t take much to set off an explosion.

No. 4. Netanyahu Is on Probation With Biden.

The Biden administration is slowly adjusting to the reality that it’s no longer dealing with the old Netanyahu. For any number of reasons—from U.S. President Joe Biden’s deep emotional attachment to Israel; to the domestic political downsides of feuding with Israel, especially with a Republican Party that has emerged as the “Israel, right or wrong” party; to the looming challenge of Iran’s nuclear program, which requires close cooperation with Israel—the administration isn’t looking for a sustained public fight with Netanyahu.

Still, the prime minister’s actions are testing Biden. And anger and frustration are building. Biden’s recent remarks about the Netanyahu government’s effort to ram through judicial reforms, saying that it “cannot continue down this road,” as well as his rather emphatic statement that there would be no invitation in the “near term” for Netanyahu to visit Washington, suggest a much tougher posture.

Yet there is still no sense that the administration is prepared to impose specific costs or consequences on Netanyahu’s government. The prime minister appears to be on a sort of probation with Biden. And how the Israeli leader handles the judicial issue and the possibility of tensions with Palestinians during the Ramadan and Passover seasons now upon us may well impact how the United States relates to him going forward.

The current tensions between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu coalition are unlike any other in the history of U.S.-Israeli relations. The two countries have had deep differences over policy, usually related to the Palestinian issue or Lebanon, but never before doubts about the values they have always said they share. Israel’s existence as its region’s only democracy—however imperfect—has been the fundamental foundation upon which support for it has rested, both in Washington and in the mind of the U.S. public at large. It has resulted in extraordinary bipartisan support for Israeli governments regardless of personalities or policies.

Should that foundation collapse and Israel slide toward illiberalism, the special character of the U.S.-Israeli relationship would change. Even before the judicial reform debate, serious doubts existed in Washington about the presence in the Israeli coalition of convicted racists and self-proclaimed homophobes. That these individuals were given positions overseeing finance, security, and the occupation only added to the problem.

In this respect, resetting the bilateral relationship won’t be easy even if the judicial reform crisis is resolved, because the issue has now become one of trust and the need for a minimum of comity. Nasty comments by Israeli politicians—reminiscent of the Obama years—don’t help. The onus for rebuilding trust will rest entirely with Netanyahu. He created this coalition, he supported the legislation that prompted the domestic crisis, and he still has not taken forthright action to change course. Given the prime minister’s current mindset and his dependence on his current coalition partners, that will be more easily said than done.

Correction, March 31, 2023: A previous version of this article misidentified the gender of former Israel Bank chief Karnit Flug.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Daniel C. Kurtzer is a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel. He teaches diplomacy and conflict resolution at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs.

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