Over the weekend, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv and other cities to protest what they see as an erosion of their country’s democracy. The demonstrations were sparked by legislation announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government that – if passed by the Knesset – would overhaul the Israeli judicial system. The move is seen by many as an attempt by the prime minister, who is being prosecuted on corruption charges, to rein in the judiciary and dodge prison time.
Some of the slogans on display at the protests proclaimed “the end of democracy” under a “criminal government”. For sure, Netanyahu’s coalition of far-right and conservative religious parties are no proponents of pluralism, civil rights and liberties. They include gun-wielding Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is the new internal security minister, and self-described “proud homophobe” Bezalel Smotrich, who has taken on the finance portfolio.
Netanyahu himself is also no advocate of the rule of law, having done everything and anything to cling to power and avoid being held accountable for corrupt practices.
But to single him out as a “crime minister” and his government as the one “destroying Israeli democracy” is quite a stretch. There has been no Israeli prime minister that hasn’t been a criminal with hands stained with the blood of Palestinians, and there has been no Israeli government that has actually upheld democracy. The Israeli “democratic state” is and always has been a myth, an illusion built to sustain the oppression of the Palestinian people and continue their dispossession.
One just has to look at who turned up at the “pro-democracy” protests. There was former Prime Minister and Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who has been accused of war crimes during the 2014 war on Gaza. He told the crowd that they should fight in “all legal ways to prevent a coup”. Then there was former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, also accused of war crimes in Gaza, but for the 2009 war on the strip. She declared: “Together we will protect the state because it is for all of us.”
But “for all of us” it is not. That was made clear when the crowd turned hostile on the small number of anti-Zionists who showed up at the protest with Palestinian flags. Those were quickly pulled down by fellow “pro-democracy” protesters.
It is also worth taking a look at the institution that Netanyahu is accused of assaulting: Israel’s Supreme Court, which supervises the Israeli regime’s commitment to its constitutional framework, also known as the Basic Laws. Protesters say it is an important entity that, if gutted, would diminish the checks and balances within the Israeli state.
But the long record of Supreme Court rulings against Palestinian rights call into question whether it has ever maintained checks and balances on absolute Israeli military power or rather whether it has provided a legal veneer for the Israeli regime’s crimes against the Palestinian people.