The Israeli government’s plans to reduce judicial independence are on hold following the country’s biggest-ever protests. Protesters are clear they’re defending the checks and balances vital to democracy. But even if the changes are halted, the reality will remain of a political system that represses the rights of Palestinians and Arab citizens. One of the reasons the far-right government wants to rein in the judiciary is to enable further illegal settlements on occupied land. The only hope of beginning to reverse the tide of Palestine’s repression and retaining Israel’s checks and balances will come if people turn their backs on the extremist politics they’ve recently embraced.

For now, the controversial judicial changes are on hold. Following extensive mass protests, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on 27 March that planned changes to limit judicial powers would be paused. Negotiation is promised before the next parliamentary session begins on 30 April.

This is a provisional victory for protesters. But there are still big questions remaining for Israeli democracy – and the problems go well beyond the proposed new laws.

An authoritarian plan

The planned changes would severely limit the ability of the courts to scrutinise government actions. Israel has a single-chamber parliament, the Knesset, without a second chamber to debate and revise laws. The presidency is largely a ceremonial role. This makes the supreme court the main limit on what might otherwise be a disproportionate concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and governing coalition.

The package of changes announced in January aims to tilt the balance decisively. The Knesset would have the power to overrule a supreme court decision by a simple majority vote. Politicians would hold a majority in the committee that appoints supreme court judges. Ministers would be allowed to appoint partisan legal advisers rather than independent ones.

The first change, passed by the Knesset on 23 March, limits the ability of the attorney general to remove the prime minister on grounds of incapacity. Previously, there’d been a possibility that Netanyahu could be removed if found guilty in any of the three criminal trials he’s currently undergoing, on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The government has insisted this isn’t about protecting Netanyahu and claims the changes will help restore public trust in the judiciary, which it accuses of leftist bias. It says changes are necessary to limit what it characterises as the supreme court’s excessive interference in political matters, painting it as a democratic move.

It is, however, straight out of the authoritarian power-grabbing playbook pioneered by the likes of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. It’s based on the flawed notion that democracy is only about the outcome of elections, but checks and balances, opportunities to express dissent and protections for minority views are all part of what makes a functioning democracy.

Netanyahu is a seasoned politician and great political survivor. But surely even he’s been caught out by the scale of the backlash, which has given rise to the country’s biggest-ever protest movement. Starting in January, mass protests have been held across the country, mobilising hundreds of thousands at a time. Protesters have blocked major roads and transport hubs, workers have gone on strike and military reservists have said they would refuse to serve.

The protests have helped focus international attention on the government’s power grab, even bringing coded criticism from Israel’s staunchest ally, the US government.

Before it backed down, the government’s first response was to vilify protesters, calling them extremists who only want to cause chaos. There were some arrests and stun grenades and water cannon were used against protesters.

Palestine on the sidelines

But the restrictions faced by Israeli protesters was nothing compared to the violence routinely experienced by Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.

Protests have been hailed as the broadest ever seen in Israel, bringing together people who normally share little common ground. But they’ve also exposed Israel’s foundational fault-line: there’s been little participation by the Arab citizens who make up around 20 per cent of Israel’s population, and few evident attempts by protesters to connect the attacks on checks and balances they’re campaigning against with the injustices committed daily towards Palestinians.

While some in the protest movement moved beyond initial demands to make broader calls for equality, Palestine has been a word largely unspoken. Opposition politicians involved in the protests have histories in denying rights to Palestinians and Arab citizens, and former military leaders have been a prominent presence. Protest leaders have evidently focused on keeping the movement broad-based, and that means not talking about Palestine to avoid any split.

The result has been a struggle between two camps who broadly share fundamental assumptions about Jewish national pre-eminence and want to preserve a system that excludes others. It’s highly likely that if the government dropped its plans, the protest movement would halt, having achieved its aim of defending the status quo.

Even if the changes are dropped for good, Israel doesn’t somehow become a model democracy – because it wasn’t one to start with.

But the judicial changes and the repression of Palestinians and Arab citizens are closely connected. The reason Israel’s right-wing government is at odds with the court is because, while it’s far from a progressive institution, it can play a role in preventing even stronger repression. The court has, on occasions, blocked government moves to further annex and assimilate Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967 and settled by Israelis in increasing numbers, in violation of international law.

Palestinians and Arab citizens have always been denied rights, but the situation in recent years has been one of further deterioration. They’re increasingly denied basic freedoms, including freedom of movement, that Jewish Israelis take for granted. Violence from security forces, and impunity for violence, has been normalised. Pro-Palestine organisations have been designated as terrorists and had their offices raided, and activists and journalists have been jailed.

Attacking judicial independence is only part of what the government is doing. It’s pressing ahead with an accelerated and expanded illegal settlement construction programme and granting authorisation to those historically built without any official approval. Police have been ordered to remove Palestinian flags from public places; waving the flag is now called an act of terrorism. A new law gives the state power to strip Arab Israelis and their families of citizenship if convicted of terrorism offences, making clear that citizenship is a gift rather than a right for Arabs. There’s even a proposal to reinstate the death penalty.

Violence has escalated since the current government took power last December. At least 90 Palestinians and 19 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed so far in 2023. The government has repeatedly responded disproportionately to acts of violence against it, further inflaming tensions. In recent months security forces have launched a series of lethal raids in the West Bank.

United Nations experts and international human groups have increasingly come to recognise the situation in Israel as constituting apartheid, with a political system that structurally favours one group at the expense of another. It will take more than stopping the judicial changes to reverse the direction of travel.

Israel’s extremist trajectory

The situation has worsened because Israel’s politics have shifted steadily more rightward, with once-fringe views now entrenched in the political mainstream. Support for secular and centre-left parties has fallen, with young people in particular getting behind stridently right-wing nationalist politicians.

In a recent series of tight elections, many political parties have competed on the basis of who can position as most pro-settler and anti-Arab. In this political race to the bottom, parties seek to appeal to the potentially decisive votes of the more than half a million people who now live in illegal settlements.

Netanyahu stoked and leaned into this trend, resulting in Israel’s most extreme government ever. As leader of the right-wing Likud party, he’s conventionally been able to form governments with other parties on the right. But his corruption charges as well as religious disputes deterred some potential allies. His solution has been to cultivate extremists and bring them into government.

The most recent of five elections held over two and a half years saw extremism reap the rewards. An alliance of three far-right anti-Arab parties headed by the Religious Zionist Party won around 11 per cent of the vote and 14 seats. The Religious Zionist Party’s leader, Bezalel Smotrich, who has a long history of anti-Arab and homophobic statements, became the new government’s finance minister. The leader of its ally Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben-Gvir – convicted of racist incitement against Arabs – is now the country’s minister of national security.

Netanyahu is reported to have intervened to encourage these far-right parties to work together to clear the electoral threshold for Knesset seats, presumably knowing they would only work with him. This manoeuvre was instrumental in returning him to power.

By placing the changes on hold, Netanyahu may be hoping the anger will die down and that he can do some kind of deal, trusting in his political skills. But he remains beholden to his far-right partners. He appears to have tried to appease them by giving the go ahead to a Ben-Gvir plan to form a national militia when he paused the judicial changes. But those extremist parties really want the changes to enable them to pursue their ideological ends, giving Netanyahu little room for manoeuvre.

The future of Israeli democracy

Even if the changes are dropped for good, Israel doesn’t somehow become a model democracy – because it wasn’t one to start with.

Far from being a bastion of human rights, the supreme court the protest movement are defending has often taken the side of oppression. It approved a 2018 law limiting the right to self-determination to Jewish people, making non-Jews second-class citizens. Last year it ruled in favour of the eviction of around a thousand Palestinians to construct an army base. Returning to the status quo can’t be enough.

The changes need to be abandoned, because they’ll make a dire situation even worse. But beyond that, a proper democracy will only result by developing structures that respect the equal rights of all people living inside the borders of Israel and Palestine. The protest movement needs to join these dots.

Ultimately it’s hard to see much change without Israelis turning their backs on the extreme politics many have embraced in recent years and starting to support those who take a more moderate view. That needs to stem from a realisation that the sources of the attack on checks and balances and on the rights of the nation’s most excluded people are the same and stem from a common ideology. There’s no other route to restoring the rule of law and saving Israeli democracy.


  • The Israeli government should immediately drop its judicial changes and commit to upholding judicial independence.
  • To ensure international scrutiny, the government should ensure that United Nations human rights experts have full and unhindered access to Israel and Palestinian territories.
  • Opposition parties must commit to eradicating extremism and offering more moderate political platforms.

Cover photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images