Israel will be even more impacted by the consequences of climate change in the future. And this affects especially marginalized groups and communities. Insights about the current situation and how protests against judicial reform are affecting life in Israel.
Climate change affects everyone! That is true, and at the same time there are population groups everywhere that are particularly hard hit. In Israel, for example, it is the Arab minority, which comprises about 20 percent of the Israeli population. This offers additional potential for conflict in a society where there is already a great deal of tension. Since last year, the Robert Bosch Stiftung has therefore supported organizations and people who are working to ensure that Arab communities also tackle climate change and its consequences. Of course, these projects are not isolated from the situation in the country. We seek exchange with local and international experts in order to better understand and classify the context and current developments. Our colleague Irene Weinz recently had one of these conversations with Ido Dembin, managing director of the Israeli think tank Molad, about the ongoing protests against the government's planned judicial reform. We offer his impressions of the current mood in society.
Ido, what is currently happening in domestic politics in Israel?
Ido Dembin: Since the Netanyahu coalition was formed in December, the new government has been trying to promote a so-called judicial reform. We opponents to the reform call it a judicial overhaul or even a judicial coup. Basically, the so-called reform would mean a series of new laws, including new basic laws, which are the equivalent of a constitution, as Israel doesn’t have one. The government is trying to consolidate more power in its hands at the expense of the Supreme Court, but also the Knesset, which is already a fairly weak parliament compared to others.
The major concern is that this overhaul would give the government too much power, in a way that is not in keeping with a modern liberal democracy. I see Israel in a current development like that of Hungary or Poland; where people get to vote but are deprived of many other basic democratic rights, while more and more power lies in the hands of government.
How does this situation influence Israeli society – where we have seen protests and a civil movement – but also relations between Israel and Palestine?
Since the government announced this reform, we have seen growing discontent and dissension among the Israeli people, including those who voted for this coalition. We do not see the usual protesters who take to the streets, but namely many former soldiers or pilots who have said they will not return to the reserves for this government. Many people in high-tech, Israel’s main economic locomotive, now are putting their time, energy and money into the protests. And these are happening where you wouldn’t expect them, not just in Tel Aviv as the center of liberal Israel, but around the country and even in the settlements.
The ongoing conflict is damaging Israeli life and society. The economy is taking a hit, contracts and external investments are being pulled – even by Israeli investors themselves. Moody’s has changed its credit rating from a positive outlook to stable due to the current events.
There is tension within the protest movement as to whether the Palestine conflict should even be discussed. Some people say the current government moves are proof of an extreme right-wing agenda connected to their aim of fully controlling the Palestinians or even annexing the West Bank. But the majority of protesters are worried they will lose support if topics other than the legislation and the Supreme Court are tied to the protests – for example the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or relations between practicing or non-practicing Jews, or about Arab-Israelis. Because of this, some people are hesitant to join the protests. And even if they think that the conflict and the occupation should be discussed, they feel that right now is not the best time. To some extent the Netanyahu government is counting on this rift inside the protest to weaken it.
You referred to the Arab minority, about 20% of the Israeli population. As you know, within the Peace portfolio of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, we cooperate with Israeli organizations that work on how this minority is impacted by climate change. Can you tell us about the role of Arabs in Israeli society?
It is important to see this in the full context. The election participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, often more neutrally called Arab-Israelis, has often been lower than that of the Jewish majority. Voter turnout in cities with a Jewish majority has been higher than 75%, while Arab votes were often closer to 50%, maybe 60%.
When the protests began, there were not many Palestinian Israelis involved. Partly because they do not perceive the protests as having to do with their lives or the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but rather with the lives of Jewish citizens. Many Arabs see the protests not as a fight for democracy, but for democracy for Jews.
Personally, I think the only way for the center-left or liberal camp to regain power is through encouraging the active participation of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But there are two major obstacles: First, they feel this is not really about them. Second, and that is pure irony, the protests are helping the liberals take back ownership of many symbols of Israel. For a long time, only those on the right would wave the Israeli flag or call themselves Zionists, while people on the center-left were concerned about it or felt uncomfortable with it. Nowadays, suddenly, you see the flag, and it means exactly the opposite – it is a liberal symbol.
Today, when you see a car with an Israeli flag driving to Jerusalem, you can be almost certain that this person supports the protest, which was unthinkable a year ago.
The left was almost ashamed of the flag or felt it had been taken from them by the coalition. Now they can wave the flag, they can call themselves Zionists, they are fighting for a democratic Israel. But this still leaves the Palestinian Israelis outside of the discussion because they do not feel represented by the flag or by the national anthem, which contains the words “Jewish soul.” So on the one hand, the protests need to find room for Arab participation, but at the same time they must not lose this fight for Israel’s national identity, and this balance has not yet been achieved in the protest.
You just said that these protests are also about national identity. How do think the situation will develop?
A few weeks ago, during the mass protests after the firing of the minister of defense, over half a million of people took to the streets and blocked the major highways. After that, Netanyahu decided to pause the changes.
But the opposition and the protesters are concerned he is looking for other and better ways to make them happen. For instance, in Poland, where protests brought about the end of a planned reform, the government then started passing laws one by one, slowly, meticulously, and finally with success. So we’ve learned from the Hungarian and Polish cases and will keep protesting as long as the government does not fully cancel the legislation.
It is hard to predict how the situation will develop. I personally don’t think this government will last for four years. I hope that the protests do not let up. So far they haven’t, and tens of thousands are still on the streets every week.
You worked a lot abroad, so in view of the current situation, what are your expectations from international partners – or do you feel that others should not interfere in this internal fight?
I do not feel that we have the privilege to say this is only our fight. We should not shy away from accepting help from around the world and from our international partners who want to see a liberal Israel. There is also so much to learn from our partners in other countries where they succeeded in reining in the far right, such as in the US or Brazil, and to some extent also countries like France and Germany. In other places, we saw the far-right rise: in Italy, Poland, and Hungary. We need to learn all the lessons from people who have been there – like in Turkey where the opposition was jailed, or in Hungary where academic class has been outlawed, or in the US where Trump declared everyone an enemy who did not share his views. We will also be able to share our experiences with other people around the world, but we need to succeed here first.
I would like to stress that what is happening now in Israel is unique – and at the same time, not. Many liberal democracies have faced challenges over the last decade. We have seen Brexit and Trump, to name a few. So we need to consider that this is very much a global trend. On the other hand, Israel has very unique characteristics that make it vulnerable. More vulnerable because Israel does not have a constitution, because it is only 75 years old, and because Netanyahu has been in power already for 15 years. It is hard to convince people that he has become a populist leader who is embracing the far right. And we have the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a very unique situation. In addition, Israel was founded as a democracy, and this is unique, as it was never anything else. You can criticize that its democracy has been damaged, and that it was never a political homeland for the Palestinians, and this is all correct. But nine million Israelis do not know what it means to live in an undemocratic state. To them, free speech, freedom of assembly, equality, the right to vote, the right to protest are all established rights. This is a huge advantage, and now people who were never involved in politics, such as those in high-tech, realize that their fundamental rights are being threatened, and they are willing to mobilize against these actions. This is unique in Israel, and it very much serves the protests.
What do you hope and wish for in the weeks and months to come?
I have a lot of hope. I want to explain this with an image: We are in a unique situation in Israel, where the seeds of new political thinking have been planted and the ground has been prepared. All we need now is sunshine to make this sprout and grow. And that sunshine is continued protest and politicians who do not relent and seek weak compromises but instead hold their ground and develop a new vision. We need to be bolder, we need ideas, we need not be ashamed that we have another vision of democracy than the current government. We have the potential, but we need the sunshine to make our vision a reality.