Protesters hold a banner depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the words 'Let my people go' in Tel Aviv [Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters]
Israel’s political polarization is beginning to gridlock the entire country — including the economy, the army, and even the airport. After a ten-day visit, I was on one of the last flights out on Monday, March 27, before the protests against the government and unions shut it down.
Prime Minister Netanyahu is receiving most of the blame for the state of affairs. To build a majority government in a country that had five parliamentary elections in four years, he assembled the most right-wing coalition in its history with a 64-seat majority out of a 120-seat parliament. But the election only reflected a 30,000-vote majority of all the votes cast. He gave high-profile cabinet positions to outspoken political extremists who have made numerous statements that Netanyahu has had to correct or explain.
The genesis of the current crisis was when Netanyahu and his conservative majority rapidly moved a judicial overhaul proposal that would position the Knesset, Israel’s only legislative body, in a more dominant position over the Supreme Court. The plan led to charges of undermining democracy and the most massive protests in the country’s short history. Firing the cabinet defense minister after his opposition to the plan on Sunday, March 26, was the final act that unleashed Monday’s threat of a general strike and closed airport. Netanyahu quickly caved but his right-wing allies are adamant that this is just a short delay in their goal to corral the court.
Delay will ease the immediate crisis but the differences in values are deep. Israel’s conservative religious parties feel the country, and especially the Supreme Court, doesn’t reflect their views and the more secular public and its leaders believe the country is drifting away from a pluralistic democracy.
If Netanyahu survives this crisis, it will be a master class in political skill, but he is the longest serving prime minister in a host of narrow majorities. Regardless of his survival, the last three months have damaged Israel’s reputation in the U.S., in the West, and especially among Israelis.
As the Jerusalem Post published in its editors’ column on Sunday, Israel is increasingly isolated, or as Tom Friedman in the New York Times put it, Netanyahu can’t be trusted.
Plainly, Israel has provoked a populist, grassroots movement fighting in massive numbers to maintain its democratic institutions. This is a new factor that the Prime Minister, his party and the government must deal with.