Mass Israel chaos over Netanyahu court coup draws mostly silence in U.S.
An injured demonstrator is dragged by police to be detained during a protest against plans by Netanyahu’s government to overthrow the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 24, 2023. Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite massive protests that have exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society. | Ariel Schalit / AP

WASHINGTON—Mass chaos in Israel over the far-rightist Netanyahu government’s legislative coup against the one roadblock—the Supreme Court—to its seizure of total government control drew, surprisingly, mostly silence in the U.S., Israel’s closest ally.

And those who spoke out split along partisan lines: Democratic union leaders, but not lawmakers, denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coup attempt; Republican presidential hopefuls backed the PM. Meanwhile, the protests and chaos showed a religious and class conflict within Israel itself.

Progressive U.S. Jewish union leaders Randi Weingarten of the Teachers (AFT) and Stuart Applebaum of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union pledged to work with like-minded Israelis to keep democracy alive there. Applebaum also chairs the Jewish Labor Committee, which joined them.

“The push to topple democratic consensus in Israel by a right-wing extreme government must be challenged,” the two union leaders declared.

The progressive Jewish organization J Street also blasted Netanyahu’s legislation. It’s committed to democracy and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The legislation makes clear Netanyahu, who is now Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister—through several stints in office—is not committed to democracy. His anti-two-state stand has been clear for years.

For Congress and Democratic President Joe Biden, it can’t be “business as usual” with the Netanyahu government, J Street said. It didn’t suggest what Biden should do, though.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib is one of the few progressive lawmakers to speak out. | via Twitter

The Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish branch in the U.S., printed up pro-democracy materials and put them online for downloading. It also referred people visiting its website to a new group, UnXeptable, of Israeli expatriates organizing pro-democracy rallies. One was in Seattle on July 25, with others scheduled for Los Angeles and Rochester, N.Y., on July 30.

They’re the exceptions. A week before, when lawmakers of both parties overwhelmingly honored the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence, progressive House Democrats were silent about the resolution—except for Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. She opposed it. The measure passed 412-9.

As Congress’s first Palestinian-American, with relatives still living in the Israeli-controlled and occupied West Bank, Tlaib reminded her colleagues of that fact, describing rampant oppression. Tlaib did not discuss the legislation, which Israeli analysts say would open the door to even more persecution.

On the right, Donald Trump’s Vice President, Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian, rushed to defend Netanyahu and his legislation. So did right-wing Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla. Both trail Trump in the 2024 Republican presidential nomination race. Both seek to curry favor with the Trumpite base, which reflexively supports Netanyahu, sometimes for messianic reasons.

Pence told right-wing radio host Hugh Hewitt, “Democrats should stop trying to micromanage what’s happening in the domestic politics in Israel…. We ought to let Israel be Israel.” DeSantis said Biden should “butt out” of Israeli politics.

But a GOP right-wing big donor, Miriam Adelson, denounced Netanyahu’s legislation months ago. The day after the Israeli Knesset (parliament) approved the law, her newspaper was one of four with full-page black ads, mourning the looming death of democracy there.

The chaos in and out of the Knesset occurred after literally months of weekly if not daily protests against the court-stripping legislation, the first of five measures the far-right Prime Minister pushed at the behest of ultra-nationalist parties and right-wing Jewish settlers on the West Bank, building blocs of his coalition and his political base.

On its website, for protests prior to this weekend’s, the Communist Party of Israel, Maki, contented itself with news reporting on other protests against the legislation. It confined its stand to opposing the decades-long Israeli rule over Palestinian territory. “Our struggle is against occupation,” the party said.

The Netanyahu law strips the Supreme Court of the “reasonableness” standard, with three requirements, it uses to judge and/or disapprove Israeli government actions, including legislation. It confines the court to deciding only criminal appeals. The law also would let the Knesset override rulings it disliked by a simple majority, and give it control over naming judges at all levels.

Netanyahu’s rightist/ultra-nationalist coalition gave him a 64-0 vote on the measure, after the other 56 parliamentarians, foes of the law, yelling “Shame!” in Hebrew, walked out. At least they were still able to walk. What was happening outside the Knesset chamber doors was not peaceful.

Police inside the Knesset building literally dragged protesters out, roughing them up on the way, injuring several. The scenes played on television, ironically on the Arab-run Al-Jazeera network.

Other broadcasts showed troops and police spraying thousands of demonstrators outside the building with skunk-smelling water from high-pressure firehoses and regular water from water cannons. Police on horseback charged after protesters. It was unknown if they rode anyone down.

Tens of thousands of people, protesting the legislation, came from Tel Aviv to shut down the main expressway in the Israeli capital of Jerusalem—an expressway built on what used to be “No Man’s Land” between Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Hundreds of thousands of people, waving Israeli flags and demanding to preserve democracy, clogged the Ayalon, the country’s major north-south expressway that skirts east Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city and center of its wealth and its opposition to Netanyahu. When police broke that up, some 15,000 returned to a key intersection, again clogging it—at 1 am.

Top military officers, current and retired, warned Netanyahu’s dictatorial move would split the armed forces and put the nation’s security in danger. At least 10,000 reservists, the backbone of the nation’s military, particularly its powerful air force, publicly said they would disobey call-up orders. Doctors, professors, and even university presidents went on strike.

Tel Aviv is chock full of high-tech firms—so much so it’s compared to Silicon Valley—but their entrepreneurs warned the government they would decamp to other nations where rights and freedoms are legally guaranteed and not subject to the whim of an unbridled ultra-right parliamentary majority.

From a hospital bed, a defiant Netanyahu brushed all the protests aside. He was rushed there the day before due to an irregular heartbeat. Doctors inserted a pacemaker. Some of Netanyahu’s extremist ministers were even angrier. One demanded mass arrests of all the protesters.

As a matter of fact, the divisiveness is so rampant that some analysts now talk about “two Israels,” one progressive, democratic, and forward-looking, the other ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious, and, like Netanyahu, opposed to a two-state solution and dismissing Palestinians and their rights. Legitimate pro-Palestinian Supreme Court rulings on civil rights cases fuel the rightists’ ire at the tribunal.

Biden, himself a long and strong supporter of Israel during his 50-year political career, said of Netanyahu’s law that such major constitutional changes—even though Israel lacks a written constitution—should occur only with a nationwide consensus. He’s met Netanyahu before, but relations are frosty with that longtime Trump supporter and confidante.

Still, as J Street pointed out, Biden refuses to move strongly against Netanyahu’s government. In the past, the organization has advocated conditioning U.S. military aid to Israel—$3.8 billion yearly—on realistic moves with the Palestinians toward a two-state solution.

That left Weingarten, Appelbaum, the Union for Reform Judaism, and J Street to carry the flag in the U.S. for Israeli democracy—a democracy many progressives and Democrats, especially younger people, doubt due to its treatment of the Palestinians and their aspirations for their own state.

“The push to topple democratic consensus in Israel by a right-wing extreme government must be challenged,” the two union leaders declared. “We are heartened the Israeli public is challenging them at home, and we pledge to do everything in our power to stand with the pro-democracy protesters and to protect democracy in Israel.

“As American trade union leaders and as Jewish activists who care deeply about Israel, we are saddened and sickened by the Netanyahu government’s frontal attack on democracy. Workers’ rights will never be guaranteed without true democracy and untethered courts.

Israelis protest against the Netanyahu court coup. | AP

“We believe Israel’s future is dependent on equality of opportunity and democracy for all of its citizens —Jewish and Arab, religious and secular,” they added. Netanyahu’s legislation would “damage…civil and human rights in Israel…and implications for further entrenching the occupation of the Palestinian people.”

J Street said the Israelis seeking to protect its democracy “need our government’s full-throated support–now. Netanyahu and his extremist coalition partners have deliberately crossed a major anti-democratic red line.” And democracy is fragile, J Street warned—there and here.

There’s also a class slant to the divisiveness, political scientists and protesters both told the Associated Press. Netanyahu’s supporters, including those of the ultra-nationalist parties, are by and large, more Orthodox, poorer, and migrants or their descendants from nations around the Mediterranean Sea.

The protesters are more middle-class, have higher incomes, and are part of the nation’s technological and educational elite. As Ashkenazim, they descend from Eastern and Central European Jews, including descendants of survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust. A plurality, if not a majority, of the court’s 15 justices are Ashkenazim. One is an Israeli Arab.

At least one major Israeli institution—Histadrut, the national labor federation—waffled on what to do. Reports said board members were trying to push Chairman Arnon Bar-David into calling a general strike, as he did in March, shutting the nation down. Histadrut did so when Netanyahu tried to jam five rightist-crafted measures, including neutering the court, through the Knesset in one monster bill.

Bar-David refuses, so far. “To bring the Histadrut into this debate is not right,” he said two weeks before.

Histadrut wasn’t the only notable ditherer. The other, so far, is the right-wing American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the notoriously heavyweight and pro-Netanyahu “Jewish lobby.” Just weeks before, at its legislative conference, Biden Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave AIPAC a stern talking-to against Netanyahu’s court coup bill. AIPAC hasn’t breathed a word about it.

“While the Netanyahu government fundamentally alters Israel’s democratic character and plows ahead toward a more authoritarian and ethno-nationalist future, ‘business as usual’ from Congress and the White House is a recipe for terrible failure,” J Street said.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.