Some 130,000 demonstrators swarmed the streets that night last month to rally against the country’s new far-right government — arguably the most extreme in Israel’s history — and an agenda that even centrist politicians say threatens Israel’s democracy. The protest wasn’t a one-off. Pro-democracy demonstrations have taken place every Saturday since the start of January, bringing in some of the largest crowds in recent memory (though smaller than the 2011 social justice protests that, at their height, brought approximately a quarter million people to the streets).
The new government is led by a familiar face, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been in and out of office since 1996 and is still on trial for corruption charges.
But the coalition he cobbled together to regain power includes elements that once composed the fringe of Israeli politics. That includes Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right religious nationalist who heads a political party named “Jewish Power.” Previously, he was a member of Kach, a party that was outlawed in Israel and that spent 25 years on the U.S. State Department’s list of terror organizations; in a twist of irony, Ben Gvir is now serving as the country’s national security minister. Since taking the helm, he has visited the Al Aqsa compound in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, home to the third holiest site in Islam. Al Aqsa is sacred to Jews as well, but such visits are viewed by Palestinians as a huge provocation — an act so contentious that Ariel Sharon’s September 2000 visit is widely credited with sparking the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising.
Another controversial figure in the new government is Bezalel Smotrich, a settler and the leader of an ultra-nationalist religious Zionist party. Smotrich is now serving as a finance minister; it is widely believed that, in this role, he will ensure West Bank settlements get the money they need to continue to grow, threatening what little possibility remains of a territorially contiguous Palestinian state.
Already, this new government is making moves to chip away at the country’s democratic space. A proposed overhaul to the judiciary would render the High Court’s judgments toothless and would destroy its independence, upending the country’s system of checks and balances. The government also announced an intent to shut down Kan — the country’s only publicly funded broadcast news service — with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi “calling public broadcasting unnecessary.” Outrage was so intense that it’s been put on ice for now as the government focuses instead on pushing through its controversial judicial reforms. Netanyahu defends the reshuffling of the judiciary, dismissively calling them a “minor correction.”
But even Israel’s own president, Isaac Herzog, is sounding the alarm. In a speech given on Sunday — the day before a massive nationwide strike that brought 100,000 Israelis to protest outside of the Knesset on Monday — Herzog warned that the country is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.”
“I feel, we all feel, that we are in the moment before a clash, even a violent clash,” Herzog said. “The gunpowder barrel is about to explode.”
When I wade into the crowd on that Saturday night, just after Shabbat has ended, there’s another consistent fear I hear from Israelis: that this new government will undermine its standing in the world, including with its most important ally, the United States. But while there are fears about losing American support, some Israelis also voice concern that American backing will continue regardless of what this new government does — a scenario they view as enabling and dangerous. Because what would an Israel — held accountable to no one, left entirely to its own devices — look like?
Avi, who works in high-tech, a key Israeli industry, says he is particularly worried about the government targeting the rights of secular Israelis, women and LGBTQ individuals — which could also prove to open rifts between America’s Democratic Party and the Israeli government. (Just a few days later, hundreds of Israeli high-tech employees would take to the streets, leaving their desks abruptly at midday to march on Rothschild Boulevard as they carried signs that read, “No democracy, no high-tech.”)
Asked if Israel’s relationship with the United States is a concern, Hila replies, “It’s always a concern. We’re supposed to be the only democracy in the Middle East and that doesn’t seem like where we’re going with the latest changes.”
Maya Lavie-Ajayi, a 48-year-old professor at Ben Gurion University, says she hopes to see some sort of intervention from the Biden administration and the European Union. “We see Hungary and we see Russia and we know you get to a point where [citizens] can’t fight back anymore.” She added that while Israel isn’t there yet, “I think that we need support to keep the democratic nature that was problematic in the first place.”
Lavie-Ajayi notes the withdrawal of American support would be a powerful lesson to Netanyahu: “Bibi would understand that he can’t just do whatever he wants, that he doesn’t have an open ticket to chip away at the democratic nature of this country.”
It’s not just people in the streets who see the prospect of pressure from abroad. In December, over 100 former Israeli diplomats and retired foreign ministry officials sent an open letter to Netanyahu expressing concern about the new government’s impact on the country’s international standing, warning that there could be “political and economic ramifications.”
Indeed, senior American officials seem to share at least some of protesters’ worries about the direction Israel is taking. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan visited Israel last month reportedly in hopes of “syncing up” with the new government. Then came Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip, during which he said he had a “candid” talk with Netanyahu, with Blinken touting the need for a two-state solution with Palestinians and the importance of democratic institutions.
Still, it seems unlikely Israel will lose American support — including billions in military aid — anytime soon.
“This administration will go to great lengths to avoid a public confrontation with the new Netanyahu government,” says Aaron David Miller, a longtime State Department official who worked on Middle East negotiations and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
At the same time, Israel’s shifting politics — particularly with a government that’s now more religious right than secular right — could have unintended reverberations. It’s taken for granted that American liberals are likely to grow ever more skittish with an ultra-conservative Israel. But some in conservative corners are also worried, according to Yossi Shain, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University, professor emeritus at Georgetown University and former Knesset Member from Yisrael Beiteinu, a secular nationalist party on the right. He says he’s constantly on the phone with American counterparts who are deeply concerned about how the new government will impact the country’s security and economy.
“The Israeli right pretends to reflect American conservative values, but in fact distorts them,” he adds. “It builds on clericalism and religious orthodoxy that negates liberties, the core of American conservative creed.”
Now, Shain says, some of the same political actors who helped foster the circumstances that enabled this government to rise are wringing their hands.
To which Israel’s pro-democracy protesters would likely respond, “Told you so.”
Back on the street in Tel Aviv, many in the crowd, though not all, link the decades of Palestinian occupation with the decline of Israel’s democracy.
“Rights for Jews only is not a democracy,” reads one poster. A massive black sign — made out of cloth and held up by half a dozen protesters — depicts the separation barrier, guard towers and barbed wire that contain the West Bank; in the middle, a dove bearing an olive branch bursts through the structure. “A nation that occupies another nation will never be free,” says the sign in Arabic, Hebrew and English.
Nearby, a woman calls through a bullhorn, “Democracy?”
“Yes!” the crowd responds.
“No!” they cry.
“I’m terrified of a situation where [Israel’s new government] doesn’t reduce American support,” says Rony HaCohen, an economist, pointing to the way the military occupation of the Palestinian territories has become normalized amid a lack of American censure.
But one protester questions even the United States’ ability to rein in its closest ally in the Middle East. Jesse Fox, a 41-year-old doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University, says that while he’d like to see the Biden administration raise some pressure, he believes Israel is already headed down “the path of Hungary” and other countries that have abandoned democratic principles.
“It starts with the court reforms,” he says. “After that, they have plans to try to bring the media under government control. And then, who knows?”
And as an American Jewish immigrant who has lived in Israel for the better part of 20 years, Fox adds, “I want Americans to realize that, right now, being ‘pro-Israel’ means opposing the Israeli government.”