Thousands of miles away from the weekly protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms, American Jews are in a quandary as they watch and read about the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets weekly to protest the prime minister’s vision for Israel. In a matter of a few months, Israel has gone from a largely stable democracy to a country that is on the edge of a dictatorship.
Netanyahu, who is now in his 15th year as prime minister, has not always been seen by Americans as the most popular leader of Israel. His brash, and sometimes haughty lectures to American presidents about Israel and the Middle East were not always received enthusiastically. Still, he was deeply respected for steering Israel through rough economic and security times, and for being a dependable ally that America could count on in the region.
But in recent years, Israelis have grown tired of his thirst to accumulate power. And part of it can be traced to Netanyahu’s influence over the electorate and pushing the country to the right. He was a constant critic of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who, after signing a peace treaty with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians, presided over a country that was regularly under attack by Palestinian suicide bombers.
After Rabin was assassinated in 1995, and the peace talks at Camp David failed in 2000, the Israeli left began to move to the center and right. Most Israelis no longer believed they could ever live side-by-side with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians had no desire to negotiate a two-state settlement. Netanyahu rode this sentiment to multiple terms.
Yet he began to alienate many former political allies, which has led to five elections since 2019. In 2021, Naftali Bennett – a former Netanyahu protégé – became prime minister. Meanwhile, Netanyahu grew more reclusive from the public – he has not held a press conference in years, and does not publicly debate his opponents while running for office. He is now on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
His current coalition, which includes three ultra-religious leaders who have been arrested several times, now seeks to gut Israel’s Supreme Court by allowing the Knesset to override court decisions. The move to reform the court has been so swift there has been no time for national debate. Seeking a voice, Israelis – most of them politically moderate, and even center-right – have protested in the streets in order to protect Israel’s highest court.
Since Israel’s form of government is different from America’s, U.S. Jews have to wade deep into Israel’s background to understand the current climate. Polls show that the proposed reforms have been widely rejected by much of the electorate. In recent weeks, Israel’s top economic advisers and a slew of American Jewish economists have warned that the judicial reforms could have a devastating impact on Israel’s economy. And the dissent has spread to the military, where pilots, former generals and even top security agents in the Mossad and Shin Bet have warned against implementing the reforms.
Through good and bad times, American Jews have supported Israel. And we can continue to support Israel by insisting that it remain a democracy, where the balance of power must be checked by a court of law – not a group of politicians. Θ