Tipping point: What Israel’s illiberal turn means for Palestinians

Israel’s growing illiberalism cannot be separated from its decades-long subjugation of Palestinians

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, convenes a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Ronen Zvulun

Israel finds itself in the grip of large-scale protests against the country’s new far-right government, led by veteran prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. At the heart of them is a government plan to increase its control over the appointment of judges and limit the ability of the High Court of Justice to strike down legislation it considers at odds with Israel’s basic laws (its quasi-constitution). Illiberalism has long characterised the State of Israel’s relations with Palestinians. Now Israel’s far right is directing it at Jewish Israelis too.

The new government was elected in November and is the most extreme in the country’s history. In addition to Netanyahu’s Likud, it includes two ultra-orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the anti-LGBT Noam, and the anti-Palestinian Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) – the ideological descendent of the Kach party which Israel, the European Union and the United States have labelled a terrorist group. The planned judicial reform is justified by proponents as necessary to rein in a court that has become increasingly interventionist and hand power back to elected representatives. But opponents have decried it as a threat to Israeli democracy and a back-handed attempt by Netanyahu to block his ongoing trial on charges of fraud and bribery while in public office.

The coalition seems intent on using its parliamentary majority to force through its legislation despite escalating nationwide protests by Jewish Israelis. Warnings of civil war, including by former prime minister, Naftali Bennett, are alarmist. But the country’s domestic polarisation does look set to deepen. Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has called for compromise and is attempting to mediate. He may yet be successful. But this would not mean the threat to Israel’s democratic prospects is over.

Palestinian citizens of Israel (who make up 20 per cent of the population) have largely shied away from joining the protests. While they are often the first to bear the brunt of right-wing policies, many feel little stake in an Israeli system that formally provides greater rights to its Jewish citizens. Also conspicuously absent from the pro-democracy protests has been the subject of Israel’s occupation and settlement of Palestinian territory.

Over the past decades, successive Israeli governments have eroded the territorial basis for a future two-state solution through the expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. This de facto annexation of Palestinian territory has been coupled with a systematic campaign of home demolitions, residency revocation, and displacement of the Palestinian population. Today some five million Palestinians find themselves under open-ended Israeli military rule – denied either a state of their own or the same rights as their settler neighbours who are Israeli citizens. The EU has warned that Israel is entrenching a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation, and conflict. Leading human rights organisations have characterised this as modern-day apartheid.

The governing coalition – which is dominated by the settler movement – has made accelerating and expanding these policies one of its top priorities. It has announced more illegal settlement units in the first two months of this year than in the last two years combined. A decision last week to advance 10,000 new settlement units and retroactively legalise nine unauthorised settlement outposts prompted a rare admonishment from members of the United Nations Security Council, including the US. Undeterred, the Israeli government is set to announce thousands of additional settlement units, including possibly in the E1 area of the West Bank which the EU has warned would jeopardise the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state. Meanwhile, pro-settler ministers continue to push for the formal annexation of West Bank territory.

The far-right coalition is also taking a more hard-line approach to Palestinians themselves, expanding the legal basis for revoking the citizenship or permanent residency – and possibly that of their families – of those convicted of breaches of loyalty and terrorism. Most at risk are the Palestinian residents of occupied East Jerusalem – which Israel illegally annexed in 1980.

Across what is left of the Green Line – which divides Israel from the territories it occupied in 1967 – the situation is rapidly deteriorating, prompting the CIA’s director to warn of a new Palestinian intifada. Last year was the deadliest for Palestinians since the end of the second intifada in 2005. This year is set to be even bloodier with over 50 Palestinians so far killed by Israeli forces. During the past 14 months, 36 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian attacks.

In response to Palestinian attacks, Israel’s hard-line minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has imposed a policy of collective punishment against East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighbourhoods, which have in turn begun a campaign of civil disobedience. In the West Bank, intensifying Israeli military incursions into northern towns such as Nablus and Jenin since a spat of Palestinian attacks in Israel last spring is further fanning the flames. Palestinians are also facing increasing attacks by Israeli settlers who have been emboldened by Israeli ministers and benefit from protection by the Israeli army. All of this is helping to propel the re-emergence of previously dormant Palestinian armed groups, with links to Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the ruling Fatah party itself.

The remilitarisation of large parts of the West Bank highlights the weakness of President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority – which many Palestinians accuse of collaborating with Israel to suppress resistance to its occupation. With dwindling popular legitimacy in the absence of national elections for almost two decades, and a moribund peace process, Abbas is struggling to re-assert control. In these circumstances, the US plan to boost Palestinian security capacity to combat armed groups will exacerbate internal Palestinian tensions. All of this is happening against the backdrop of intensifying rivalries between Fatah officials to succeed Abbas as Palestinian leader, and the increasing alienation of grassroots activists from their Ramallah-based leadership.

These Palestinian dynamics point to the broader unravelling of the Oslo Middle East peace process. While there are domestic factors at play, this is ultimately the culmination of decades of Israeli settlement policy designed to block the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The arrival of a more extreme Israeli government now risks propelling a full collapse of the Oslo paradigm

The arrival of a more extreme Israeli government now risks propelling a full collapse of the Oslo paradigm

To date, European governments have been reluctant to address the consequences of Israeli actions head on, let alone hold Israel accountable for its violations of international law. States such as Germany and the United Kingdom have long opposed Palestinian recourse to international legal mechanisms such as the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. Set against efforts to enlist the “global south” in defending the international order in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this has exposed European countries and the EU to accusations of double standard that damage their international credibility.

European concerns about the future of Israeli democracy may force a moment of reckoning with the Israeli government. But any effective response must acknowledge that the current democratic backsliding in Israel is a corollary to the illiberal policies pursued against Palestinians for decades. Left unchallenged, the settler movement will continue to dominate Israeli politics. If Europe truly wishes to reverse Israel’s illiberal turn, it must also tackle its settlement roots in the occupied territory.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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