The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Unprecedented events in Israel hold lessons for U.S.

An Israeli protester waves the Israeli flag Monday as police use water canons after clashes in Tel Aviv. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
5 min

Nothing like this has happened in the history of the state of Israel. Ironically, in a moment that recalls the Arab Spring, the religious, the secular, the business community, leading intellectuals, labor unions and even the military rose up to thwart, at least temporarily, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheme to subvert an independent judiciary.

The country had been plunged into near chaos. The airport, foreign embassies, schools and businesses closed. Twelve weeks of protests culminated in massive crowds gathering across the country, including outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. With military leaders warning that reservists would not report for duty and members of his own party wavering, Netanyahu hit the pause button.

While he agreed to negotiate with the opposition, he also pledged to keep moving the bills through the Knesset after the Passover break next month. He has not addressed the Sunday night firing of his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, after Gallant urged him to halt the judicial overhaul. And he has said nothing publicly about the private deals made with members of his coalition to get them on board with the pause.

This is not to minimize the victory already obtained. From Israel, Nimrod Goren, senior fellow for Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute and president and founder of Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, told me, “Netanyahu did blink, and having the Knesset go on recess without passing this legislation is an important achievement for the protests movement. It reflected the power of the citizens and the willingness of major national institutions to join in.” He added, “This will be a lesson for Netanyahu to remember when the Knesset comes back to work in a month and is not something that [has] often happened in other countries that faced a similar process.”

It’s a tribute to an unprecedented alliance that spans religious, political, social and ethnic differences in Israel. Michael Abramowitz, head of Freedom House, told me, “We have been deeply concerned about the proposed changes to Israel’s judiciary. We are glad that Netanyahu has decided to pause the planned overhaul, apparently in response to widespread concerns that the plan would weaken the country’s democratic institutions.” He added, “A healthy democracy possesses strong checks and balances. We have sadly seen a trend in recent years of leaders winning elections and, once in power, changing the rules of the game to stymie competition and consolidate power.” American Jewish organizations also expressed support for the move.

The Biden administration, after escalating statements warning that Israel needed to maintain democratic consensus, also praised the move. “We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at her daily briefing. “Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for.” She added, “Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.”

The administration would be wise not to ease up. Netanyahu will take any praise as a green light to return to his quest for greater power. The time to curb excess — with allies or foes — is when they are vulnerable. The somewhat galling sight of Netanyahu addressing (remotely) the democracy summit should be met with a stern warning that he won’t be invited back next year unless he respects a core attribute of democracy: an independent judiciary.

“Netanyahu is ending this first chapter with some major wins — pausing the legislation, not stopping it, but still getting the opposition to be willing to engage with him,” Goren observed. “The legislation is ready for quick approval whenever he finds fit, after being cleared for final vote by the committee.” He warned, “The U.S. issues a positive statement on his move, after voicing criticism in recent weeks; he hopes that playing for time will cease the protests’ momentum; ministers who threaten to resign in response to his move — [Justice Minister Yariv Gideon] Levin and [Itamar] Ben Gvir — didn’t do so.”

Netanyahu is still threatening to push forward. The Post reported, “On Sunday, the government is also planning to propose the creation of a ‘national guard’ under the control of Ben Gvir, who received the promise after reportedly threatening to quit several times Monday, which could have brought down Netanyahu’s coalition.”

Opposition leaders rightly remain clear-eyed and skeptical of Netanyahu’s promise to sit down. Unless and until this government falls, the threat of authoritarian power grabs will remain. Peaceful street protests can keep the pressure on. In addition, a planned national strike at a date certain if the sides do not reach a compromise would maintain the momentum built over months of protests.

The Israeli episode holds lessons for the United States and other democracies. First and foremost, unity is essential. Whatever differences on policy issues exist, refusal to join hands with those with whom you disagree is a fatal error when trying to save a democracy. It’s essential to persuade citizens to put loyalty to democracy above loyalty to party or institutions (even the military). Without a democratic foundation, no other political cause or institution can survive.

Persistence is also required. A week or a month of protests won’t do. A few school closings don’t make a dent. Only a nationwide movement of peaceful protests, week after week, month after month and with a clearly articulated goal can capture domestic and international attention, helping opposition forces prevail.

And finally, in the age of Twitter and TikTok, nothing moves hearts and minds like images — images of police brutality and mass protests. It’s only when the images are too powerful to ignore that those in power relent — even temporarily.

The whole world occasionally does watch, with dramatic results.