Israeli Crisis Shows How Protests Can, and Can’t, Force Change

As Israel’s protest movement raged from January deep into March, sending tens of thousands of furious citizens to the streets against a plan to overhaul the courts, it seemed clear that something would have to give.

But for much of that time, it didn’t seem like that something would be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The hard-line partners in his fragile coalition government had threatened that the judicial overhaul was the price of remaining prime minister, and there was little sign he would put his premiership at risk.

So Israel appeared to be at an impasse: Protesters said the overhaul could catastrophically undermine the checks and balances of Israeli democracy. The plan’s backers, many on the Israeli right, say the judiciary has overreached its authority over the years and become a barrier to substantive political agendas.

Then, on Sunday and Monday, the ground shifted with extraordinary speed. As the protest movement ratcheted up its pressure through labor unions, businesses, universities and, perhaps most importantly, members of the military, Netanyahu announced the overhaul would be put off until after a parliamentary recess, allowing time for negotiations with leaders of the opposition.

The ultimate resolution to Israel’s crisis remains unclear, with many protesters concerned that Netanyahu will reintroduce essentially the same plan if talks fail. But this week’s rapid changes offer an object lesson in what it takes for a mass movement to translate public anger into political results. The answer, as I’ve written before, comes down to one word: leverage.

Winning sympathies, forcing change

“The question of social movements being successful is always the question of ‘where do they have leverage that can really force political leaders to do something that they otherwise would not?’” said Wendy Pearlman, a political scientist at Northwestern University who studies social movements in Israel and elsewhere.

Forms of leverage are specific to the circumstances of each country. In South Africa, for instance, in addition to trade embargoes, the anti-apartheid movement was able to leverage the economic elite’s dependence on Black labor, Elisabeth Wood, a Yale University political scientist, wrote in “Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador.” Through labor organizing and strikes, they successfully put pressure on the Afrikaner economic elite, who then demanded change from those who held political power.

In the Israeli case, among the many uncertainties, an initial question seemed to be who might be able to cause rifts in the governing coalition, Pearlman said.

Netanyahu’s government is made up of multiple right-wing and religious parties, some of them small, with just a few seats in Parliament. They have tremendous leverage over Netanyahu, because any defection could spell the end of his government. And until this week, they had insisted they would not tolerate delaying or abandoning the overhaul.

Those parties represent specific, highly ideological constituencies, and so are relatively insulated from the pressures of mass demonstrations, Pearlman said. At first, it was not clear whether the protests had much leverage.

Israel’s New Far-Right Government

Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative administration ever in Israeli history.

But an unexpected source of pressure emerged. Some members of Israel’s military reserves, including from the elite units of the Israeli Air Force and the prestigious military intelligence service, announced they would not report for training or military operations unless the overhaul was scrapped.

The reservists argued their military service was subject to an implicit social contract: They had agreed to serve a Jewish, democratic state. And so if Israel ceased to be a democracy, as they argued would occur through the overhaul, they would no longer have an obligation to serve.

That symbolic framing helped “legitimize why people would do something which is un-done in the Israeli experience, which is to disobey military orders,” said Yagil Levy, a scholar of civil-military relations at the Open University of Israel.

Reservists’ strong social ties and active communication networks meant they could quickly mobilize. “There are numerous WhatsApp groups, where the people most of the time coordinate Independence Day barbecues, or are just sharing jokes,” said Gal Ariely, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University and former reservist. When the crisis began, those networks became powerful vectors for political messaging and organization.

“When those networks get activated, it reaches a very broad spectrum in Israeli society,” said Jennifer Oser, a political scientist at Ben-Gurion University who studies protests.

The government blinks first

And crucially, those networks had a form of leverage that ordinary civil society groups lack: the power to directly affect national security.

The government “woke up in the morning and came to discover that they wouldn’t have a real option to attack Iran,” said Levy, the scholar of military relations. (The precise impact of the protests on the military’s capabilities is not clear, but senior military officials have warned the government that the military was on the verge of reducing the scope of certain operations.)

There are some parallels with security services’ actions in other countries. Yanilda Gonzalez, a Harvard political scientist who studies the role of the police in new democracies, has found that police forces are often able to protect their own interests by selectively withdrawing their services until politicians agree to their demands. But that pressure tended to be unstated, and intended to protect officers’ interests rather than ensure the nature of the overall political structure.

In Israel on Saturday night, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, publicly warned the government: Pursuing the overhaul was putting Israel’s national security at risk.

Netanyahu then fired him on Sunday. In briefings to Israeli news organizations, his office said Gallant should have done more to dissuade reservists from protests.

If that was intended to make the protesters blink, it had the opposite effect. Within hours of the firing, protests erupted anew. Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a highway and set fires on major roads, and crowds in Jerusalem broke through security barriers at Netanyahu’s private residence. On Monday, the main labor union called for a general strike, bringing many services to a halt and snarling air traffic. Universities closed down and hospitals went onto a weekend timetable, dealing only with emergencies.

“I think that the latest decision was the key, because it was seen as a problem in judgment,” said Guy Lurie, an analyst and constitutional scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute, a research group that opposes the judicial reform.

Israel’s military is by far the most respected institution in the country, he said. And there is a powerful political and social taboo against anything that would put it at risk.

“Nobody in the majority of the members of the Knesset in Israel can afford to accept a situation in which the military is disintegrated,” Levy said. “So the great pressure was on Netanyahu.”

The prime minister’s coalition partners began to indicate they might give room to compromise. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security and the head of a far-right party within the coalition government, said that he was open to delaying the overhaul temporarily, though he insisted that “no one will scare us,” and that it would pass eventually.

On Monday night, Netanyahu announced the overhaul would be suspended until after Parliament’s April recess. In response, unions called off their strike.

Now, members of the government and opposition parties are meeting for the first time in an effort to negotiate a compromise. But with divisions so deep, it’s hard to see how the crisis might quickly end.

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