Netanyahu’s Judicial Overhaul Has Divided Israel. Even the Religious Right.

EFRAT, West Bank — A rapid effort by Israel’s right-wing government to overhaul the country’s judiciary has polarized Israeli society, deepening longstanding rifts between the right and left, the secular and the devout.

But it has also caused small fissures within the government’s natural support base: religious nationalists.

The government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which took office late last year, seeks to entrench Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank and preserve Orthodox control of Jewish practice — two policies that broadly appeal to the Israeli right, and which could be made easier by restricting judicial oversight over Parliament.

But the government’s flagship plan to significantly curb the influence of the judiciary, and to do so without society-wide consensus, has nevertheless created unease among a small but growing group of right-wing and religious Israelis, many of them settlers themselves.

“People like me — right-wing, religious, Orthodox people — usually hold the position that the justice system in Israel, and the courts’ authority, has to change,” said Einat Halevy Levin, a vocal opponent of the government’s plans.

“But what the government wants to do is ripping apart Israel,” Ms. Halevy Levin added.

Religious right-wingers, led in part by Ms. Halevy Levin, have become a visible presence at weekly anti-government protests in Tel Aviv, a bastion of secular and liberal Israelis. Some have also made speeches at the rallies.

Dozens of settlers joined a conference last month in Jerusalem for left-leaning Orthodox Jews, organizers said, as participants discussed how to oppose the government from a religious standpoint.

Demonstrators on Monday outside Parliament and the Supreme Court, background, in Jerusalem.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

A group of right-wing mayors added their names last weekend to an open letter that called on both the government and opposition to compromise. And on Saturday night, more than 100 settlers held a demonstration in Efrat, a large settlement in the southern West Bank that has rarely seen such a show of dissent to a right-wing government.

The fact that small cracks are now emerging even in right-wing strongholds is a sign of how bitterly Israelis have been divided by the government’s judicial plans.

A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence

A recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has stoked fears that tensions may further escalate.

  • Balancing Act: In the aftermath of recent Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, faced domestic calls for a harsh crackdown as well as international pressure to show moderation.
  • Home Demolitions: In response to the violence surge, the Israeli government is aggressively pursuing the policy of leveling the family homes of Palestinians accused of attacks as a deterrent.
  • Fueling Tensions: The roots of the violence predate Israel’s new far-right government, but analysts fear the administration’s ministers and goals will further inflame the situation.
  • Raid in the West Bank: Israeli military forces killed at least five Palestinian fighters in the occupied West Bank. The deaths brought the number of Palestinians killed in the territory since the start of the year to more than 40 — the deadliest start to a year for Palestinians in the West Bank in the past decade and a half.

In a public call for compromise on Sunday night, the country’s largely ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, warned that Israel was “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,” and possibly even “a violent clash.”

About 100,000 protesters gathered in central Jerusalem on Monday to demonstrate outside Parliament, in one of the largest protests ever in the city, while a similar number have protested every week since the start of the year in Tel Aviv.

The government wants to make it harder for the Supreme Court to overrule lawmakers, while also increasing the government’s influence over the selection of judges. Ministers say the changes are necessary to give unelected judges less control over elected lawmakers, a move that they believe will allow government policy to better reflect majority opinion.

Right-wing Israelis were historically frustrated by the court’s support for the dismantling of Israeli settlements in Gaza, or more recently by its decision to bar a leading lawmaker in the governing coalition from serving in the cabinet. Ultra-Orthodox Jews also resent the court for opposing measures that give them special rights, including exemptions from military conscription.

Efrat, a large settlement in the southern West Bank that has rarely seen such a show of dissent aimed at a right-wing government.Credit…Maya Alleruzzo/Associated Press

But critics say the plans, which still need weeks if not months to pass through Parliament, would damage democracy by stripping the judiciary of its independence; give far too much power to the government in office; endanger minority rights; and set the stage for additional legislation that might allow Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister, to escape punishment in his ongoing corruption trial, a claim he denies.

Leaders on both sides have accused each other of attempting a coup, and a new poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based independent research group, suggested that more than a third of Israelis fear the standoff might set off civil war.

Some commentators say the proposals have created a worse internal crisis for Israel than the huge social divisions created in the 1990s by negotiations with the Palestinians, which led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

That disagreement was “about the border of the state,” said Yedidia Stern, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute. “This is much more serious: It’s about the character of the state.”

In some respects the disagreement has become a proxy for a wider, decades-old culture war between Israel’s largely secular, centrist establishment and the ascendant religious right. The Supreme Court has long been a target of the right wing, which sees it as too meddlesome and sometimes too resistant to parts of the settlement enterprise, while the center and the left typically consider it a cornerstone of liberal democracy.

But a vocal if still small array of religious right-wingers has highlighted the growing diversity of the government’s critics. Many of them remain broadly in favor of some kind of judicial change, but they think the current plans go too far, too fast, and need to be achieved by consensus.

“They’re throwing the baby out with the bath water,” said Moshe Beigel, 63, one of the settlers who attended the rally in the settlement of Efrat last weekend. “Most people want change, but it just has to be done through negotiation,” Mr. Beigel added.

More than 60 percent of religious nationalists still support the proposals, compared with a national average of 41 percent, according to the Jewish People Policy Institute poll. But 55 percent still want to see the government engage in dialogue and compromise, instead of forging ahead with its original proposal. And 14 percent oppose it outright.

A group of young men gathered across from the anti-government demonstration in Efrat on Saturday, trying to drown out the protesters with a counterdemonstration of their own.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

In Efrat, where roughly seven in 10 voters backed the governing coalition in a general election last November, more than 100 people stood in the cold to protest the proposals on Saturday night.

Many did so despite strong misgivings about breaking ranks with the right and finding common cause with leftist Israelis who oppose settlements.

Ariella Dubrowin, 47, said she thought twice before coming from a nearby settlement. What if her neighbors found out? Would they call her a turncoat?

“I’ve literally been having anxious dreams about people finding out I don’t support this government,” Ms. Dubrowin said. But the judicial proposals are “dooming the country,” she added. “And it’s painful.”

Ms. Dubrowin said she was attending one of her first protests since 2005, when she demonstrated against Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Tellingly, that withdrawal was backed by the Supreme Court, one of several decisions that put the court in the cross hairs of the settler movement. But though ambivalent about the court’s role in public life, Ms. Dubrowin still feels that any overhaul needs society-wide buy-in.

“I want consensus on something as big as this,” Ms. Dubrowin said.

In theory, the government should be able to count on most religious nationalists, who believe that all of Israel and the occupied territories were promised to Jews by God. They generally oppose the creation of a Palestinian state in the areas that Israel occupied during the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 and later settled with hundreds of thousands of Israelis, illegally according to international law.

The governing coalition has already begun to authorize more settlements — on Sunday, it gave retroactive authorization to nine settlements that were set up without government permission — and has pledged, eventually, to annex the entire West Bank. The governing coalition even includes a party, the Religious Zionism Party, that is named for the wider religious nationalist movement.

But to dissenters within the movement, all this is overshadowed by the coalition’s other activities.

A sign reading “Guarding the common house” at the rally in Efrat.Credit…Avishag Shaar-Yashuv for The New York Times

As well as the judicial overhaul, some coalition lawmakers want to cement the primacy of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, restrict the influence of non-Orthodox streams and take a harsher approach to Palestinians. The Religious Zionist Party leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has a history of inflammatory statements about Arabs, including support for segregation between Jews and Arabs in maternity wards.

None of that sits well with more liberal-minded religious Zionists, who support a more pluralist approach to Jewish life and a more tolerant approach to Palestinians, even while still opposing Palestinian sovereignty.

Mr. Smotrich “stole our name,” said Ms. Halevy Levin, one of the protesters in Tel Aviv. “This is not religious Zionism. This is a bunch of crazy people who took over our society.”

But many in her community still side with the government. In Efrat, a group of 20 young men and teenagers gathered on the pavement opposite the anti-government protest, trying to drown out the protesters with a counterdemonstration of their own.

The atmosphere was still relatively civil, and some of the government’s supporters sought to play down the tensions. “If there will be a civil war, and I hope that there won’t, then I will not take part in it,” said Eyal Rubinstein, 17.

But Mr. Rubinstein still hoped the government pressed on with its plans without compromise.

“We are the majority,” he said. “We should do what the majority wants.”

Isabel Kershner and Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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