Israel: the war over status quo

– In six months’ time, Israel will be completely different. Everything is on the table. We could see total annexation of the West Bank and a conservative revolution, or we could see a constitution and a liberal revolution – says Meron Rapoport, an award-winning investigative journalist with over 30 years of experience in the Israeli media.

Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.

In your articles, you analyse the current Israeli government, especially in terms of the programmes of the parties that make it up. However, let us start by providing some context. For foreign observers, Bibi’s political comeback was a real resurrection, as the name of Netanyahu is connected to a chain of scandals, which include a potential bribery of the attorney general and the manipulation of the Israeli media market. American commentators have compared his comeback and newly formed political entourage to the modern Donald Trump movement. How is it possible that far-right minority parties combined with Likud were able to win the elections and then easily form a government in the first place?  

I must separate out a few things. This was in no way surprising to us. The accusations of corruption thrown at Netanyahu are old, the first one dates from 2016. Nothing new. What is more, the people who voted for him bought the myth that he was being prosecuted for his beliefs and that he represented the underprivileged people of Israel, Mizrachi. Jews of Arab origin who were once excluded from power by white Ashkenazi elites. We have a history of similar cases: Arje Deri, Bibi’s chief advisor and supporter, was convicted in 1999 of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; he received a three-year prison sentence, and it changed nothing. His Shas party did not lose any voters because of this. He later became its leader.

It is the same with Netanyahu; he is the most powerful politician in Israel in the last 30 years. In the polls he was one place ahead, one place behind. No one was really surprised here. Very vital are his problems with the law. Since they started, Netanyahu has become increasingly dependent on these far-right parties, because any coalition with the centrist parties has disappeared from the horizon. So, he must rely on them. And they want to annex all the land and drive out the Palestinians, organising, in short, a new Nakba, so for them it was OK he is corrupt. With their vision of a new Israel, it is nothing. 

There is also talk of more frequent invocation of the Halacha judicial tradition in the Israeli legal system, the creation of armed citizen militias, the revocation of citizenship from people accused of terrorism…. 

Of course, but these are the ideas of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and the Religious Zionism party. Since the beginning of the corruption scandals, Netanyahu has had a limited scope of action. What was unacceptable three or four years ago has now become acceptable. The problem, which I think lies deeper, is that Netanyahu used to be the guardian of the status quo. That was really his main achievement. He did not really change the Rabin policy initiated by the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu has no great achievement that he can use to portray himself as the person who changed Israel’s history. 

However, he claims to be the ‘Lord of Economic Growth’, the man who created the legend of the successful start-up revolution in Israel. This is undoubtedly his achievement. It is hard to take it away from him, although many internal factors contributed the growth of start-ups…

Yes, it happened when he was first elected. At that time, he focused on economics. In 2009, when he won the election for the second time, he proposed something different. It was the maintenance of the status quo, that is, that we could, on the one hand, continue the occupation of Palestine without all the annexation, and on the other hand, continue to establish settlements and erase the Green Line. He pushed the view that peace with the Palestinians is not necessary simply because the Palestinians do not count. They are not real players.

This strategy culminated in the Abrahamic Accords – the normalisation of diplomatic relations with the United Emirates, Bahrain, and later Morocco. 

And this could be seen as another major, historic, achievement of Bibi. It closes a phase in the Arab Israeli conflict. Let us face it. Netanyahu is not just a good politician who can cling to power, as you suggest.  

I do not agree that this is really a great achievement. Yes, it has enabled Israelis to visit some places they could not go to before but what threat were those countries? They were not a threat at all. It improved Israel’s economy but it did not affect the reality here… 

Because the agreements did not include the Palestinians? 

Exactly. Since the signing of these agreements, we have seen in the last two years the most bloodshed in many years. What happened in May 2021? Riots and violence in East Jerusalem, then the bombing of Gaza and the lynchings in the mixed cities of Israel, Haifa, Accra, came as a deep and shocking shock to Jewish Israelis…. The conflict, which supposedly was be resolved by weakening the Palestinians, suddenly returned. We lived through weeks of continuous violence. Only two people were killed inside Israel, but dozens, if not hundreds, were injured as part of street violence. It was not something comparable to the second Intifada, when an average of 100 people were killed per month. However, the psychological effect was gigantic. This was the moment when Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich convinced Israeli public opinion by saying that the status quo was not working. The Palestinian threat had not been eliminated, they say. 

Here it should be added that this situation has redefined the ‘Palestinian threat’. For what is this threat? It is not the people of Gaza, the West Bank, or the Palestinian Authority. The threat is the neighbours, the Arabs living in Israel, with whom Israeli Jews encounter daily. It is them, not the mythical Palestinians from behind the walls. 

Yes, the Palestinian threat was also redefined by them because of these events. And they stated that there is nothing more important than dealing with this threat. This is what Ben-Gevir and Smotrich said. They have a very brutal proposal to end this conflict. They call it the ultimate defeat of the Palestinians. This is what they say, what they write and declare daily. They want to annex the West Bank, to create some kind of loyalty exams for the Palestinians, for those who will accept Jewish superiority. They will not be able to have citizenship, but some kind of residence permit. And if they do not accept that, they must leave, they will be expelled, and if they object…. It is not written anywhere explicitly, but by default they will be killed, I think.

Ben-Gvir, who is a little less eloquent on the matter, wants to expel not only disloyal Palestinians, but he also wants to expel even Jews! For example, people like Ofer Cassif, who is a Jewish member of the Knesset from the left-wing umbrella party Hadash, which is an equality front with predominantly Arab voters. Ben-Gevir once proposed revoking his citizenship. 

All this gave the religious radicals a lot of popularity, 11% of the people voted for them, Jewish Power was on Smotrich’s list, called Religious Zionism. Lower middle-class people voted for them. All this thanks to a campaign founded on having a solution to the ‘Palestinian threat’. 

Quite a few votes came from the youngest voters. Something contrary to the common belief about liberal young Israeli Jews. The electorate of this list is people who are dissatisfied with Likud, Mizrahi or Haredim and young extreme nationalists. And at the same time, it must be said that economic barriers, such as the cost of living in Tel Aviv, for example, are causing many liberal young people to emigrate to Europe…. 

Yes, those who remain from the younger generation are more religious than most of their parents and ancestors. We have been under Likud rule for more than 20 years, with small breaks, which were also marked by Netanyahu’s rhetoric and solutions. The last centre-left government was in power in 1999. So, there is a whole generation that grew up in a right-wing education system, full of nationalist content. They know nothing else. There were no negotiations with the Palestinians in their lifetime.The whole idea of mutual peace efforts is not even present in their imagination.

All they know is the wars with Gaza, in which the IDF kills 2,000 Palestinians and 3-4 Israelis die on the other side. They do not see people in Gaza, they see people dying on their side, they see shelters and rockets fired from Gaza. They think there is no one to talk to, no one to negotiate with. And as you said, the only Palestinians they see are their neighbours. Ironically, under Likud, the Arab community in Israel has become much stronger than ever. 

We even saw Arab politicians in the last government. The conservative religious minority party was part of it. 

We saw first in 2019 and then in 2022 successful negotiations between the various Arab parties to create a joint Arab list. This was unprecedented. They have become economically stronger, I would say that about 25% of doctors in Israel are Arab, that is more than their share of the population. More than half of the pharmacists are of Arab origin. They are everywhere, from public transport to universities. In every university, Arabs make up at least 20% of the students and lecturers. 

And you must add to this the approximately 300,000 workers from the West Bank doing, I don’t hesitate to say this, slave labour. They are completely at the mercy of their employers, as they are the ones who give them work permits. They are often not fully paid, and their rights are violated. It is a semi-slave system. 

 I agree, at the same time they are the backbone of Israel’s economy. An endless reservoir of desperate cheap labour. People hear more Arabic, they see these people more often, sometimes in important places. For example, the head of a department may be a Palestinian Arab, I know of two hospitals that are run by Palestinian directors.

We must recognise that since 1948 they have been able to participate in political life and vote, but they have been denied the opportunity to have their representatives in the power structures. If there were any, they were quickly excluded from any decision-making processes. So, this change in their political rules was a symbolic notable change. Right-wing Jews felt threatened because it changed their own ability to form a majority. So, there was a huge mobilisation of the right-wing electorate last time, and most of the right-wing propaganda during the Benet government was focused on the Arabs in the Benet-Lapid administration. Both May 2021, and the presence of Palestinians in the last government were behind the mobilisation of the far right. 

However, the main political drama inside Israel now concerns the reform of the judicial system. Let us point out that the main revolution here is to allow the Knesset to block any Supreme Court ruling by a simple majority. This would simply render the idea of a supreme court obsolete. A poll published by the Israel Democracy Institute on 15 January 2023 “found that a majority of Israelis, (55.6 percent), support [the Supreme Court] having the ability to overrule laws passed by the Knesset parliament if they contradict democratic principles.” 

I have never seen anything like it. Never. Something similar happened in 1977 when Likud first won the elections, but I am still not sure it can be compared. This is a real earthquake. And you know a bit about it from your Polish experience. Because what they want now is the complete destruction of any judicial oversight. 

Just before our meeting, I watched a short film made by the Kohelet Foundation, which supports the reform. They claim that the judicial system in Israel has some kind of superpower unparalleled in any other country. And that all decisions of the Attorney General, who is appointed, not elected – they always emphasise this – and decisions of the Supreme Court are imposed on the democratically elected government. This is their narrative – not much different from the one the Polish government had at the beginning of its rule. 

Yes, this is their narrative. But the Israeli Supreme Court is conservative, it has never questioned the reality in the occupied territories, the demolition of homes, colonisation, or anything else, nor has it gone along with the reports of the International Crimes Tribunal and human rights NGOs. 

So why do they want to do it? 

There are several reasons for this. The first is that this is the only thing today that creates consensus among the coalition parties, because this coalition is only apparently cohesive. The only thing they unanimously agree on now is this judicial reform, which I would call a coup d’état judiciaire [judicial coup d’état – WAL]. They cannot apply this Smotrich-Ben Gvir plan because there is too much pressure from the United States to maintain the status quo. They are quite frustrated. The Haredim, and therefore the Orthodox communities, are also fed up because any reforms towards a more religious state are also blocked by Netanyahu, and at the centre of this is the erosion of LGBT+ rights. 

So, at this point, I must ask, was this judicial reform the main electoral topic or was it somewhere on the margins and now it is at the centre because of the situation you have just described? 

During the campaign, the fundamental issues were Palestinians, disloyal Jews, annexation, settlements and the problems of religious Jews and anti-liberal sentiment. These were not really discussed. The second issue is that the Haredim not only want to change the liberal laws regarding the LGBT+ community, but they also want to pass some laws regarding their own autonomy, e.g., they do not want to serve in the army. 

However, here, as I know, thanks to the Kohelet Foundation, the Haredim proposals concerning the army, for example, were rejected by the Supreme Court? 

Yes, this is true. The conservative status of the Supreme Court implies an approach that seeks to preserve the status quo, to colonise the territories, and at the same time to preserve the secular and liberal face of the Israeli state and society. This is why the religious parties want to push through this judicial reform. Most of them already omit military service, but they want it to be legal and openly stated by law. Behind all this is the real intention of this government, which wants to destroy everything that is liberal in Israel. That is why they are allowing actions against the Palestinian minority inside Israel. They want to deprive it of the right to participate in elections, or at least disqualify the parties representing it, and then act against the Palestinians of the West Bank. Of course, all this would undermine freedom of speech and liberal democracy. People at demonstrations are chanting “We don’t want to be Hungary! We do not want to be Poland!”. And I say: I wish we were Hungary or Poland. I wish. We are far, far behind. We are occupying the territory of another nation. Is Poland occupying the territory of another country? And yet Poland has the European Court of Justice, and we will have nothing after this reform! Nothing!!! If this reform passes, then Hungary and Poland will be paradise. 

What is the state of the reform now? Some proposals have already been voted through? 

At the end of March, the committee that approves the judges is to be voted on, which will give the coalition absolute power to appoint judges. They will also have the power to appoint supreme court judges, and this has already been passed. There will be an appeal to the supreme court. Other parts of the reform concerning the court’s ability to overrule laws passed by the Knesset and the rest will be discussed in a month and a half. However, it is not clear whether they will stop there or not. They are discussing it now. It is not clear, because they say they are not giving up on the reform and want to negotiate, it is not clear whether they will have any green light from the Liberals. It must be said that the daily demonstrations of thousands of people do not convince them that they will stop there, they do not believe in their negotiating approach. They are now surprised by the protesters who really want to protest every day. Even people from the army, people from the reserves are demonstrating against it. People are saying that they do not want to go to the reserves to defend a country that is governed so anti-democratically. This affects the day-to-day work of the army. So, it is destructive. Being in the army is part of the Israeli social contract, and they want to break it.

What is the reaction of the Supreme Court which can reject this law? 

There is a good chance that the Supreme Court will reject this reform. The coalition has decided to limit itself, but it still goes too far. If the Supreme Court disqualifies the law on the appointment of judges, they will not abide by it, the Minister of Justice – Javir Levin – said. Israel is entering a real crisis, there is no telling what will happen. The protesters are not ready to give up, it is now the 15th week of protests. 150-300 thousand people on the street. The interesting thing is that the protesters are less interested in reform, they want to change something more fundamental in Israel, the status quo itself. They are talking now about a constitution that would enforce equality and so on. This means that we are going head-to-head in a noticeably big clash of visions. The protesters are rejecting the philosophy of this government. The confrontation is much deeper than anyone thought almost three months ago. 

Are there any male or female leaders of the protest? 

There is no protest leader, but they are protesting, nonetheless. There are many groups, some of which already existed and were involved in the protests of Netanyahu two years ago. But many others were formed ad hoc. The high-tech industry, veteran soldiers, doctors, academics, these groups have organised themselves and are now coordinating among themselves. The politicians of the centre-left parties had no influence on the demonstrations. So, the situation is really complicated. They do not even see them as a real movement because it is very decentralised. They want it to stay that way, there is something behind the scenes, but it does not look like it.

We will see what direction it goes. They have the same goal, the constitution and getting rid of Netanyahu and this far-right government. Even the president supported the vote for the constitution. People want to make sure that this situation does not happen again, they want to make sure that minorities are defended, even Palestinian minorities. Equality has never been understood in Israel’s laws since its inception, because religious Jews feared equality for women and Zionists feared equality for Palestinians. This is not just a slogan, it has great political significance, relating to the foundations of Israel. Jews now have supremacy within the existing framework. Equality would change that, so it is a dramatic clash between two quite different visions of Israel. Now everything is unclear, this government may fall, it may not, and if it does, we do not know what the centre-left government will do with the idea of equality pushed by the protesters. 

However, the conflict is again spilling over beyond the issues that are being discussed within Israel itself, namely judicial reform. Shifting the axis of the conflict to the status quo regarding the occupied lands. On 26 February, a few hours after the murder of two Jewish Israeli citizens by a Palestinian terrorist, Jewish settlers living illegally in the West Bank began a pogrom against the Arab population in the Palestinian town of Huwara and several other villages, in which dozens of Palestinians were injured and one person was killed. More than 15 houses and 30 vehicles were set on fire. Furthermore, on 7-8 March, we witnessed another attack on the Jenin refugee camp, where the IDF refused to allow ambulances to approach the camp…. 

That was exactly what, I would say, opened the question of the relationship between occupation and anti-democratic reform. I am not saying it was seen that way at the beginning. The fact that Smotrich went to the US and was not allowed to meet with any US official. Then he said in Paris that there were no Palestinians, having a map of Jordan behind him. He said that this is the great Israel. The one he wants to establish. This makes it increasingly clear to liberal Jews that the anti-Palestinian policy is linked to an anti-democratic coup. This is still not the main issue, the main issue is reform, but it is becoming increasingly clear that if we are talking about real democracy, we must talk about the Palestinians. At the last demonstration there was a block against the occupation, which was much bigger than the last time, it is getting bigger, and there is a lot of positive reaction among the people on the streets. This is the product of Smotrich’s attitude and actions. 

At the same time, it is difficult not to mention here that the head of the CIA said a few weeks ago that the situation resembles that before the Second Intifada. Moreover, Haaretz published an article in which a columnist stated that a civil war between Israelis is now not taboo and is possible. 

Civil war is a big word. Now there is an operational pause, there are some talks with the opposition, but it is only a ceasefire. It is possible that we will see violence. We may see a few people killed in the streets or injured, but I do not see how people will really fight each other. There may be some sporadic violence, but I do not see a civil war. I see my country sinking into a major crisis if the right-wing does not stop. But they also know that this is the only time they can carry out this conservative revolution. So, this is their only time, and they know it. 

But we do not live in a vacuum. We see a lot of senseless bloodshed in the West Bank perpetrated by the IDF, we see Israel’s international standing declining and the status quo slipping. The scale is so large that it is hard to say whether it is not a revolution or not, there are certainly revolutionary moments. There are tens of thousands of people who are prepared to fight hard for a more equal Israel. I am not saying they will fight to the death; I am not sure. Now the far right is surrounded, and we must wait for their reaction. There are still huge forces involved in the situation. All I can say is that in six months’ time Israel will be completely different. Everything is on the table. We could see total annexation of the West Bank and a conservative revolution, or we could see a constitution and a liberal revolution. But I know that no one thinks that all this will pan out just because of this first reform, whenever it happens, it will only be the first clash of this social conflict that we are seeing here. 

Meron Rapoport is an editor at Local Call and an award-winning investigative journalist with over 30 years of experience in the Israeli media, including his tenure as the head of the news department at Ha’aretz and editor at the then-largest paper in the country, Yedioth Ahronoth. His crucial reporting has been recognized time and again, including his groundbreaking investigative coverage of the theft of olive trees from Palestinian owners during the construction of the separation barrier, which won the Napoli International Prize for Journalism. He is also a long-time political activist. Rapoport is one of the founders of the Land for All movement, which calls for the establishment of two independent states, Israel and Palestine, with open borders, freedom of movement and joint institutions.

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