By James Sunderland, University of Oxford | –
The death in custody on May 2 of Khader Adnan, the first Palestinian to die of a hunger strike for more than 30 years, sparked mass protests in Gaza and an exchange of fire between Israel and armed Palestinian groups. It was later announced that a ceasefire had been agreed, but the situation remains febrile.
It’s another headache for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s already struggling to hold together his fractious coalition in the face of mass protests over his government’s plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary to make it effectively subordinate to the Knesset, or parliament. Netanyahu was forced to shelve the plan in April after four months of street protests in Israel’s cities.
But there is also significant support on the right – both within Netanyahu’s coalition and on the streets. On April 28 an estimated 200,000 pro-overhaul protesters gathered in Jerusalem for a mass rally ahead of the reopening of the Knesset after Passover.
They were addressed by figures including the justice minister, Yariv Levin, who said the government remained committed to the planned overhaul. He also attacked opposition parties for refusing to compromise over the legislation as part of a mediation process being led by Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog.
Netanyahu’s promise in April to seek a compromise plan has been met with scepticism by many opposition figures and ordinary Israelis. This is at least partly due to promises from government ministers to plough on with the measures one way or another and their hostile rhetoric against the supreme court and the millions of Israelis who want to prevent the reform.
On April 15, the number two at the justice ministry, David Amsalem, called for an investigation into the protests and for the current supreme court president, Esther Hayut, to be charged with “an attempted coup”.
Tens of thousands took to the streets again last weekend, the 17th consecutive week that Israelis have turned out for mass demonstrations against what many see as a plan that would undermine Israeli democracy.
Challenges on multiple fronts
Meanwhile, clashes between Muslims and Israeli police during Passover and Ramadan led to heightened tensions with the Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states. After Israeli Defence Force troops twice stormed al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, arresting hundreds of worshippers and injuring several, it drew an immediate response from what are believed to be Hamas members based in Lebanon.
A barrage of 34 rockets was launched into Israel over the following weekend, but were mainly intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.
Warming relations with the Gulf states, meanwhile, have also turned progressively chillier in recent months due to inflammatory language regarding Palestinians from far-right coalition members and heightened settler violence in the West Bank.
These are dangerous times for Israel as it marks the 75th anniversary of its statehood. Israeli society is fractured – and external enemies of Israel know this. But so too does Netanyahu.
He is an inveterate political survivor, who understands that the current situation is untenable. The decision to prevent Jewish worshipers from entering the Temple Mount, where Al Aqsa is located, until the end of Ramadan seems to have been designed to de-escalate tensions.
Meanwhile, after firing his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, for speaking out against the overhaul, Netanyahu has awkwardly rescinded that decision – another sign of how serious the situation has become. But given the language being used by various hard-right government ministers and the violence they are whipping up, it’s unclear how long any relative calm can last.
The path ahead
Facing unfavourable conditions at home and abroad, Netanyahu will probably attempt to focus on preparing and passing the budget in the coming weeks. This, he may hope, will distract hardliners in his coalition from the judicial reform and secure some political breathing space.
Yet it’s far from certain that many ministers will be so easily diverted. Even as Israeli society tears itself apart and investors pull their money from the country in response to the proposed overhaul, many members of the government remain ideologically committed to neutering the courts – no matter the cost.
This could unleash more trouble. Many protesters feel Netanyahu, a man renowned for stabbing even his allies in the back, cannot be trusted. Even if he attempts to defuse the situation, the attitude of many of Netanyahu’s ministers is likely to make many people even more sceptical of his real intentions. Protesters are unlikely to disappear from Israeli streets any time soon.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, has already shown he is willing to bend to the demands of the far-right in order to keep them behind him – though cracks in the relationship are beginning to show with several members of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party threatening to resign.
Lost in much of the coverage in the west as Netanyahu announced his plans to pause the judicial overhaul, was the price the security minister Itamar Ben Gvir – a convicted supporter of a Jewish terrorist organisation – managed to elicit from the premier in return for support for the legislative pause: an armed “national guard” under his command.
The force has not come into being yet. But despite Netanyahu’ efforts to water down the force’s powers and Ben Gvir’s grip on the organisation, the decision to hand the extremist minister such a force demonstrates the hold hardline and far-right ministers have over this government.
All signs point to continued chaos as ministers continue to call to push through the deeply divisive overhaul legislation and the far-right continues to profit from its intransigence. Ben Gvir’s national guard could further ignite tensions with the Palestinians and by extension armed Islamic groups in the Middle East. Although Passover provided a welcome break in Israel’s political drama, more unrest is on the cards.