130,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday to voice their disapproval of Netanyahu’s new government. The Netanyahu Cabinet 6, an unprecedented coalition of conservative Likud with hardline religious Zionists and no less fanatical Jewish nationalist parties, had been in power for only two weeks. This was enough to fuel all the fears that the arrival of the far-right formation had aroused at home and abroad. For example, there was the defiant march to the Temple Mount of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a seasoned rioter and rabid Arab hater, who was given the portfolio of Minister of National Security. The intention of the coalition agreement to expand Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank was immediately put into practice with the establishment of a new outpost.
Yet the masses of Tel Aviv have mostly protested against plans for Supreme Court reform and political trusteeship. “Biblical disaster” was a slogan on many billboards. Exaggerated? “No,” says former Knesset speaker, progressive politician, writer and businessman Avraham Burg. “These protests are different from the protest two years ago. Back then it was aimed at corrupt politicians, but this time it’s about the heart of our democracy.
Ironically, Netanyahu now sounds like the voice of reason.
What worries you the most? An escalation of the conflict with the Palestinians? Or the weakening of the Supreme Court, one of the pillars of Israeli democracy?
Abraham Burg: These two are an extension of each other, it’s a matter of justice. As long as we continue to deprive millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories of their basic political and democratic rights, there can be no question of a just society. Why these protests now? Because this government is now also jeopardizing the democratic rights of its own Israeli population.
Many participants only defend their own comfort zone. The organizers also did not allow speeches in Arabic. Regrettable. I founded a new political movement with some sympathizers. All its citizens, It’s all in the name. It will be a bilingual party that does not see Israel as a Jewish state, but as a country in which all citizens have equal rights.
But the importance of an independent Supreme Court surely cannot be underestimated?
Castle: I don’t want to idealize the Supreme Court, after all it was the institution that legally legitimized the policy of occupation for fifty years. But yes, there is a lot at stake. As imperfect as it is, the Supreme Court is the cornerstone of a judicial system based on the separation of powers. This is now being attacked by a new doctrine that places religious law above secular law.
Many protesters are only defending their own comfort zone.
How do you judge the role of Benjamin Netanyahu? Is it true that he made sweeping concessions to hardline Zionists and nationalists so that as prime minister he could escape the process of corruption that has plagued him for six years?
Castle: This corruption affair will continue anyway, but perhaps political agreements were made during the training. If found guilty, Netanyahu could lead his supporters to believe that he is the victim of political judgment. Netanyahu is politically weak and therefore susceptible to blackmail from his government partners. The result: the parties that until recently populated the extreme margins of the political landscape now form the mainstream. Ironically, this situation makes Netanyahu sound like the voice of reason. That’s how the outside world sees him, anyway, as the only one capable of curbing extremists in his own government.
The question is whether it will work. With five elections in four years, the political landscape in Israel is very unstable. How long do you give this firm?
Castle: (Laughs) Every day is one too many for me. But if the government manages to get a budget approved, we stop for a year or two. I see three scenarios. It’s going to be a wild ride, but Netanyahu stays in the saddle by regularly giving away a piece of our democracy to the hungry lions of extreme Zionism and nationalism. Or perhaps the pressure is such that he is turning to moderate opposition leaders like Benny Gantz or Yair Lapid to form a new majority. But I can’t rule out things blowing up and snap elections happening anyway.