Taking a Look at Israel’s Unending Constitutional Crisis

JERUSALEM - MARCH 27: Former Prime Minister and Leader of the opposition Yair Lapid (Rear R) and Israels Former Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz (Rear L) attend a voting session in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament... JERUSALEM - MARCH 27: Former Prime Minister and Leader of the opposition Yair Lapid (Rear R) and Israels Former Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz (Rear L) attend a voting session in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem, Israel on March 27, 2023. Mass protests have been held in Israel for 12 weeks against the government's plans to reform the justice system and limit the power of the Israeli Supreme Court. (Photo by Israeli Parliament (Knesset)/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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A couple days ago I got this email from TPM Reader PT. I was sort of delaying responding because it’s a really complex question. So I’ve decided to post the question and reply here. I preface by noting I’m not an expert on Israeli politics. I don’t live there. But I have followed it closely for many years. So I put it forward on that basis.

From PT

It feels like this whole year I’ve been trying to understand the situation in Israel — specifically the fact that the governing coalition wants to make a fundamental change to the country’s political organization and is facing furious pushback from the citizenry. My first thought was that it had a certain “Leopards Eating People’s Faces Party” energy to it: Netanyahu’s overriding priority is to ensure that he isn’t prosecuted for corruption, which means that his overriding priority is to destroy the court system in Israel; hence if you elect a governing coalition that includes him and makes him PM, destruction of the court system is a given. So how do we arrive in a place where everyone knows that Netanyahu’s goal is to destroy the court system, the electorate elects a government that will make him PM, and then the electorate protests when he does what everyone knows he’s going to do.

After thinking about it some more, I have a somewhat different take:

Is it possible that the protestors who wish to prevent this change to Israel are all in the coalition that lost in the last election? That is to say, is it possible that the protestors are vehemently opposed to this change but also unable to prevent it via electoral means?

The thing that really strikes me about this is the outpouring of opposition among people who are current or retired members of Israel’s national security infrastructure: the military, security, and intelligence services. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s coalition includes the most religious segments of the population. Those segments are both the fastest-growing ones in Israel’s population, and are also exempt from conscription into the military (and I presume they also don’t serve in the intelligence or security services, partially because they’re also exempt from learning anything useful in school, hence would be of no use to those services).

If all of the foregoing supposition is correct, it makes me think that Israel is heading to a demographic crisis, one that is symbolized by this policy issue. Specifically, the crisis is that on the one hand the less-observant members of the population are in danger of becoming a minority that is permanently shut out of the governing coalitions, and on the other hand they are also the population that Israel relies on for its national security and conscripts into the military. Indeed, given this combination — obligation to serve in the military and absence of political representation — is it too much to say that Israel is embracing slavery as a policy?

I get the sense that you have more of a grip on Israeli internal politics than I do. Am I totally off base here?

And here’s my take …

There’s quite a lot PT gets right here. But there are key things that, I think, are off, which make quite a bit of difference.

Let’s start with what’s actually happening. On its face, what the right coalition government is trying to do might seem like what some on the left in the U.S. want to do: curtail the power of an unelected Supreme Court in favor of decisions by an elected government. But that’s misleading. Each government or state has its own mix of powers and balances. You can’t just compare things in isolation. In addition to the judicial branch, the U.S. has an executive branch and a legislative branch made up of two separate chambers, which are often at odds with each other. It also has 50 states which are their own subordinate but distinct governments. This is all in addition to many informal power centers. Israel has one government, based on a majority in the Knesset. There are towns and cities and administrative districts. But there are no separate government structures or bases of power. The executive is just the majority in the single legislative chamber. And there’s no written constitution to constrain its action. 

What all of this means is that Israel is what amounts to a parliamentary dictatorship. The country’s Supreme Court is the only meaningful check on its actions. That’s the best way to understand the peaceful rebellion against what the current government is trying to do. 

PT is right about another dimension of this. 

One of the most striking features of this many months long crisis is that elite sectors of the military — or specifically, reservists — have joined with the extra-parliamentary opposition threatening to refuse to serve if the government goes through with its reforms. This would be a big deal anywhere. But Israel is a country not dominated by its military per se but certainly dominated by the culture of its military and the cultural force of its military. Everyone — with significant exceptions, which we’ll get to — is conscripted into the military at age 18. For decades the country’s politics have been dominated not simply by retired generals but by retired chiefs of staff. Paradoxically, Netanyahu is perhaps the biggest exception to this rule, though he served in Israel’s most elite special forces unit.

The passive resistance of key elements of the most elite echelons of the military brings us to another feature of the current crisis. The government’s reforms are generally opposed by the people who run the country’s economy and its tech sector. These are among the most educated of Israelis. It’s also opposed to a significant degree by the people who fight its wars. The government meanwhile is dominated by the hyper-nationalist right which is firmly allied with the most radical elements of the West Bank settler community (and to a significant extent resides there) and the country’s ultra orthodox community. The latter are mostly exempted from military service, exist outside the government’s educational system and live on public subsidies. 

You can see the very stark contrast. If we paint with a very broad brush, the people who make the country’s wealth, pay its taxes and fight its wars are refusing to be lorded over by a government dominated by elements of the population who are exempted from military service and live on public subsidies. There is perhaps an even clearer dynamic in which the more modern and democratic elements of the population are in a standoff with the most nationalistic and authoritarian ones.

As a side note PT says that Netanyahu appears guided by the overriding goal of avoiding prosecution. That’s right as far as it goes. But I think it’s simpler than that. Going back to 2009, Netanyahu has really been focused on the overriding goal of staying in power. Now, staying in power includes the need to stay out of jail. Whichever of these overlapping goals he’s pursuing, he has done so by assembling increasingly hyper-nationalist and far-right coalitions. “Assembling” doesn’t quite do it justice though. On paper, Netanyahu leads the right-wing Likud party and then builds a government with other right-wing parties. But part of Netanyahu’s svengali-like mastery over Israeli politics is that he not only assembles coalitions, he wills new parties into existence that will make it possible to assemble the kinds of coalitions that will maintain him in power. Think what you will of the guy. And I could scarcely have a lower opinion of him. But his level of political skill is close to unparalleled even on a global level.

In any case, with the factions explained as I have above, most readers of this site probably have very little question whose side of the standoff they would stand on. But, PT suggests, are they not simply making a righteous stand in the streets in a battle they couldn’t win at the ballot box? After all, this government was elected only last Fall. 

But here this isn’t really the case. Since the beginning of the crisis, polls have consistently shown the public opposes the government’s reforms and that a new election would reduce the right-wing bloc’s numbers to somewhere in the low to mid-50s, well below the threshold to form a government. So the government was elected and then rapidly exceeded its mandate by attempting to ram through foundational constitutional changes which a majority of the population opposes. 

Just how this has occurred is not simple to explain. The gist is that Netanyahu for reasons of self-interest and demographic change has led the right camp in Israeli politics in an increasingly radical direction. This has been necessary to get some advantage in the multi-year electoral standoff in which multiple elections resulted in what amounted to ties, followed by governments which fell in a matter of months. But with the judicial reform he appears to have lost the support of key elements of the Israeli center and more traditional Likud right. If polls show his government dropping from 64 seats to 53 in a new election, that’s the part of the electorate he’s lost.

I think Netanyahu’s hope must be that he gets these judicial reforms behind him, keeps his coalition together and then stays in power long enough that more traditional right-left dynamics kick in again to make it possible to win another election. Whether that will work I really have no idea.

How exactly is it that the ultra-orthodox population — which is 14% or 15% of the population, lives mostly outside the main institutions of the state and lives on public benefits — has an increasingly decisive role running the state? It goes back to a series of deals founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion cut when the state came into being. This was when this part of the population was minuscule and seemed more like a nostalgic curiosity than a potential state power-broker. But religious revivalism had far more of a future than people like Ben-Gurion realized. Plus, this population had mammoth families and they were subsidized by the state. We might reuse the lines from All The President’s Men: “The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand,” though Ben-Gurion was incredibly shrewd. Just not about this. 

Then there’s the part of this equation that is as yet unmentioned but is in many ways the thread binding everything together. I mentioned before that for four or five years Israel has been in an electoral standoff with tie elections that yield governments that can only survive a few months or years. But it’s not quite so simple. The right and now the far-right can often put together a government with a two or three seat majority. But it’s very hard for the center or center-left to do so. And it’s hard to see that ceasing to be the case as long as 10% or 15% of population remains outside the political process.

Arab Israelis make up just over 20% of the population. The Druze community serves in the military and fully participates in the political process, often in the Likud party. A percentage of the Arab population votes for other Zionist parties, usually on the left. But most vote for non-Zionist Arab nationalist parties whose Knesset members are kept out of majority governments by a kind of mutual exclusion. There’s a major taboo on building majorities with Arab nationalist parties and these parties refuse to sit in Zionist governments as well. It’s a complicated topic which I really can’t do justice to in this post. 

This is why it was a very big deal that the Islamist United Arab List party joined the government of Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid in the government that immediately proceeded this one. 

In any case, I don’t really think it’s correct that this is judicial reform opponents trying to undo in the streets what they couldn’t win at the ballot box, though that’s definitely what the government supporters claim. But there is a larger demographic/political crisis that does seem to be on the way to making Israel ungovernable without some broader realignment of the country’s politics. 

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