When Netanyahu falls, Israel’s democracy will need new political realignments

A more centrist coalition government would respect the rule of law, but its ability to advance peace will be far from guaranteed.

Expert comment Published 17 January 2024 4 minute READ

In the aftermath of 7 October, the common mantra in Israeli politics is that things can neither go back to how they were the previous day, nor should they. To a large extent this is correct, not only in terms of relations between Israelis and Palestinians, but also regarding the domestic scene in both societies.

However, the underlying predicaments remain the same, except that now they are more severe and need to be resolved more urgently. They must also be addressed in a far more challenging context, following the horrendous Hamas terrorist attack that has shredded Israel’s security strategy towards that Islamist movement, and in the midst of the gravest political, constitutional, and domestic crisis in Israel’s history.

To meet this challenge Israel will need to do more than vote out Netanyahu at the end of the war. Its society will have to create new political realignments, featuring fresh voices from across society, to rejuvenate its democracy and make real progress towards a two-state solution – and the long-term peace that has been denied to Israelis and Palestinians for so long.

The government’s assault on Israeli democracy

Until 7 October the deep divisions in Israel revolved around the government’s assault on the country’s democratic system, following the formation of the most far-right government in the country’s history in early 2023, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his cynical attempts to remain in power, and therefore escape justice in his corruption trial, Netanyahu was ready both to weaken the judiciary and cave-in to the demands of his ultra-orthodox and ultra-nationalist partners. His government set the country on a path of  Jewish religious jurisprudence of the most fundamentalist version, and the most extreme hawkish, never mind racist, approach to the Palestinians.

Netanyahu’s popularity was a dwindling commodity even before the war in Gaza, but since then has been in free fall.

Consequently, the expansion of the settlements accelerated, the brutality of the occupation was further entrenched, and a blind eye was turned to settler violence, not to mention actual support for it.

Netanyahu’s popularity was a dwindling commodity even before the war in Gaza, but since then has been in free fall, while the Jewish Israeli population (with minor exceptions) supports the war and is behind the IDF and its modus operandi.

But the vast majority can’t forgive Netanyahu for overseeing the catastrophic failure of defences that resulted in the 7 October massacre – especially as a politician who had cast himself as ‘Mr Security’ – and then getting involved in a war not only with Hamas, but at a lower intensity, at least for now, with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

This has led to the forced evacuation of northern Israel, leaving Israelis the most insecure they have been since the founding of the state. Now the country is facing trial by the International Court of Justice, accused of committing genocide in Gaza.

The National Unity party led by Benny Gantz… has been handsomely rewarded in the polls, which are suggesting that should a general election be held now, the party will more than triple its seats in the Knesset.

Meanwhile, more than 100 days since the war on Gaza began, the objectives of the war are unfulfilled. The promise to destroy Hamas (never realistic) has not materialized, despite Israel’s use of excessive force to cause death and destruction on a massive scale. Additionally, 136 of the Israeli hostages taken on 7 October are still in captivity.

This will hardly be a vote-winning record when polling day eventually arrives.

Centre-right gives current government some credibility

What keeps the current government together, and enjoying a degree of credibility among Israelis, is that the centre-right National Unity party led by Benny Gantz has joined the war cabinet.

In return the party and its leader have been handsomely rewarded in the polls, which suggest that should a general election be held now, it would more than triple its seats in the Knesset to 37 MKs, putting it in pole position to form the next coalition government.

Such an outcome would most definitely deliver a change in government style, featuring more transparency and accountability and respect for democratic rules, including the independence of the judiciary.

It would also mean a more limited presence of religious and extreme right-wing parties, which support annexation of the West Bank and even Israeli resettlement of Gaza.

However, there are hardly any signs that such a government would represent a sea change when it comes to relations with the Palestinians, or be more inclined to work towards peace based on a two-state solution.  

Can the judiciary save Israel’s democracy?

Earlier in the war, some in Israel worried that two appeals submitted to the Supreme Court against Netanyahu’s anti-democratic measures had been forgotten. But the justices were actually toiling on writing their rulings, which were published earlier this month and upheld both appeals.

Article 2nd half

First, they nullified a law passed by the Knesset in July which sought to eliminate the reasonableness clause of a Basic Law. They then postponed a further amendment that seeks to remove the power of the attorney general to declare a prime minister unfit for office.

Due to the importance of the reasonableness clause, a full 15-justice panel heard this case. Its ruling was passed with the slimmest of majorities, with eight justices ruling to strike down the law and seven to uphold it.

It is expected that the end of the war will see Netanyahu’s long political career end – giving him a potential personal interest in prolonging the war.

But this tells only half the story, as 13 of them also wrote in their opinions that the court did have the authority to review Basic Laws and amendments made to them by the Knesset. It was a clear statement that the judiciary, supported by an active civil society, were ready to fight back and save Israel’s democracy.  

A new alternative

It is expected that the end of the war will see Netanyahu’s long political career end  – giving him a potential personal interest in prolonging the war, something that newcomers to the coalition shouldn’t support.    

Israel’s judges and the pro-democracy protestors have defended its democracy. But if a Unity Party-led government is the most likely outcome of a new election, Israel’s political system is unlikely to develop new approaches to meet the urgent, severe threats to security that the Hamas attacks exposed.

Israel needs to explore new political realignments, incorporating fresh talent from different walks of life that could take it back on a more democratic path at home, and towards a pragmatic policy on its future relationship with Palestinians and the region.

But for that to happen the country needs to do some profound soul-searching, and to question how it has arrived at this low point in its history.