Despite months of widespread protests, Israel’s right-wing government passed a law on Monday curbing the authority of the country’s Supreme Court to block government decisions. This legislative action is just the beginning of a larger plan aimed at bolstering the nationalist Israeli right’s grip on power. This week on Intercepted, Jeremy Scahill and Murtaza Hussain are joined by Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American journalist and a senior analyst on Israel-Palestine at the International Crisis Group. Zonszein sheds light on the social-political dynamics driving the protests, the far-reaching implications of curtailing judiciary power on Israel and Palestine, and the future of Israel-U.S. relations.
Jeremy Scahill: Welcome to Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Murtaza Hussain: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.
Reporter, Good Morning America: George, you can hear the anger on the streets. The vote in the Israeli parliament just taking place. Protestors not able to get near the parliament because of the police, but protestors spilling right down the road. There is real anger on the streets of Jerusalem right now.
Anchor, ABC News: Israeli media says that hundreds of thousands of Israelis rallied against the move, as lawmakers who opposed the bill stormed out of the chamber before the vote chanting, “shame,” leaving it to pass with unanimous approval.
MH: For the past seven months, protests have taken hold of Israel as the right wing government has embarked on a plan to limit the power of the country’s judiciary. This Monday, the Israeli parliament passed the first law of the plan, limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to block government decisions.
Anchor, AlJazeera: And we continue with breaking news this hour. Israel’s parliament has voted and approved to change a crucial aspect of the country’s judicial system. The new law will limit the power of Supreme Court judges.
MH: Earlier this year, in what observers have called a democratic crisis, the Israeli state began its attempts to scale back judicial power. In March, widespread protests in opposition to the plan postponed any further development.
But Monday’s vote by the Israeli legislature, known as the Knesset, was the first step in scaling back judiciary power. And the Israeli nationalist right wing is celebrating its passage. The stakes are high, with a potential further consolidation of power by the right wing. There are a lot of implications of what this could mean for the future of Israel, for the future of Palestine, and U.S.-Israel relations.
JS: Joining us now to discuss all of this is Mairav Zonszein. Mairav is an Israeli American journalist and commentator. She’s based in Tel Aviv, and has covered Israeli politics and U.S. foreign policy for over a decade. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post and other publications. She’s currently the senior Israel analyst with the international crisis group. She’s joining us now from Tel Aviv. Mairav, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.
Mairav Zonszein: Thanks for having me.
JS: So, let’s just begin. The latest news is that this law passed. There’s a lot of debate happening right now among legal scholars in Israel as to whether or not the Supreme Court will actually try to invalidate it. It seems like a lot of legal scholars are suggesting that the court probably will not do that, at least not imminently, but that there are sound legal arguments from both directions.
Give people a sense of exactly what this means if this law sticks, and the Supreme Court — or the high court, as it’s also referred to — does not invalidate it. What does this mean?
MZ: So, the Reasonability Clause —as it’s called in English, I guess — they just basically canceled it. Up until now, the Supreme Court could strike down laws — not basic laws, which are the closest thing to what Israel has as a Constitution — but other laws. It can strike them down if it finds them to be unreasonable.
And unreasonable is a very kind of unclear term, but in legal parlance, it means when you put political considerations before the public good or before other interests, so this is mostly an issue of corruption, separation of powers. It mostly has to do with administrative administerial decisions.
For example, when this government was formed, the head of the Shas Party, Aryeh Deri — who has been convicted recently of tax fraud — was appointed to be Interior Minister, which is a very senior position in the government. And the Supreme Court came and said, this is not reasonable, he can’t be a minister when he was literally just convicted of tax fraud.
So, he was fired as a result, they honored the Supreme Court decision, but now with this Reasonability Clause gone, potentially they could reinstate him, and then there would be a crisis of what would happen next.
MH: So, Benjamin Netanyahu came to power, returned to power on the back of a very extreme coalition in the past few years. Can you tell us a bit about the nature of this coalition, and how its motivations [helped] push through these revisions to Israel’s judiciary?
MZ: Yeah. So, Netanyahu has basically been in power for over a decade, [for] I believe like, 12, 13 years now, and then there was a lull in which he wasn’t for about a year. And when he returned to power, he basically had already been charged and [put] on trial for corruption in several cases.
And that basically caused a split in the right in Israel between various members of his own party who split off and other members who decided they’re not going to work with him anymore as a result of him being on trial. They believed he shouldn’t be serving as prime minister, even though it’s technically legal for him to do so. So, that split on the right created fissures in which Netanyahu basically couldn’t come back to power and form a majority coalition without turning to far-right parties.
So, the two parties that are on the far right, the settler/nationalist religious far right that came into power as a result of Netanyahu deciding to work with them. The religious Zionist party, one of them is headed by Bezalel Smotrich, who is now the finance minister, and a minister in the defense ministry — which has a lot of ramifications that we can get into later — and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who runs the Jewish Power Party, which is essentially a racist Meir Kahane party.
So, these two parties have a lot of power, they’re both senior ministers in government. And, ironically, the person who’s been leading the judicial overhaul is actually somebody in Netanyahu’s Likud Party, and his name is Yariv Levin, he’s the Minister of Justice. He is also a pro-settlement, annexationist type. He’s talked about wanting to annex the West Bank for quite a long time and how the Supreme Court gets in the way of doing that.
So, they all kind of share the same agenda on that level, but the person who’s actually been leading this, and came out right after they were elected at the end of December of 2022, he came out and said, OK, we’re going through with this judicial reform. It’s going to start, it’s going to look like this. And the minute that happened, protests started to erupt.
So, that’s kind of how it started.
JS: What is the actual agenda here? There’s a lot of analysis suggesting this has to do with some of the examples that you’re mentioning, that there are corruption cases and other cases against Netanyahu. There was the blocking of an appointment of someone because of the past convictions.
But what, from your analysis, Mairav, what’s the actual agenda? What do they really want to do by passing this?
MZ: They want to annex the West Bank to Israel. I mean, there’s other elements involved. The religious parties want to, for example, formalize into law that they will be exempt from military conscription, because their communities study Torah and Jewish law instead of going into the army. So there’s different interests for different groups, but what kind of ties them all together and what has kind of become a status quo consensus in Israel, for better and worse, is that Israel holds control of the West Bank, and that it needs to legalize and formalize that control. Because the settlers, specifically, and the settler movement, have had certain blows to their aspirations over the years.
So there was the Oslo Accords, which was one of the major first ones. There was the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. And there have been Supreme Court decisions — not many — but some that have obstructed and made it more difficult for Israel to continue to settle in the West Bank.
For example, in 1979, the Supreme Court ruled that Israel cannot take over private Palestinian land when it can be proven that it’s private property of Palestinians, simply for the purpose of replacing it with Jewish inhabitants. It can be for security reasons, it can be for other reasons. So, that, for example, was a Supreme Court decision that the settlers find to be a big wrench in their plans.
And if you look at the people who are leading the judicial overhaul plan, the hardliners in the government — most of them, except for Yariv Levin — live in settlements and are settlers, and some of them are hardcore settlers. So, I would say that that is definitely the common denominator here. They don’t want the court getting in the way of their plans to continue to create this “greater Israel.”
MH: So, there have been these protests against this judiciary reform for a very, very long time now, several months consecutively, and this week we saw protests around the passage of the bill, which were even quite violent or escalating, it seems like, in the face of this very determined effort by the Netanyahu government.
Can you tell us a bit about the motivations and the underlying drive of the protesters? Because, clearly, there’s a divide in Israel society between secular and more religious Israelis. How does that manifest, particularly over this issue you mentioned of annexing the West Bank?
MZ: So, to understand what the protest movement looks like, it’s hundreds of thousands of people, but it’s a fairly homogenous group. Not politically, but socioeconomically, and also ethnically, as far as them being from the Ashkenazi elite, which is Jews of European descent, versus Mizrahi Jews who are from North Africa and the Arab world.
If you look at the people who are going out to protest, these are people from the center of Israel, mostly — even though there are protests across the country, I don’t want to undermine that — but they have served in elite combat units, they are the leading high tech company leaders, doctors. I mean, these are from the very, very high levels of Israeli society, and they feel like their contract that they have with the state to have a liberal democracy, as they see it, is being broken, and that settlers and religious nationalists are taking over what is otherwise a great country that does wonderful things.
So, they feel very betrayed, and they’ve also risked their lives in several wars, their kids risked lives in wars, and all of a sudden they’re supposed to be listening to people who didn’t serve in the army, because they’re either too dangerous, or too religious, or whatever. And so, they’re extremely resentful.
So, they’ve kind of come out in very, very high numbers; I think this is unprecedented in Israel, and also the consistency. You’ve had pretty much every week, for six months, 100,000 people coming out. And they’ve done it not just in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but also in North and South as well.
But it’s also important to point out who’s not coming out to the protests, which is what I alluded to before, which are the Palestinian citizens of Israel are not there. Jews of other ethnicity, whether it’s Ethiopian Jews or Jews of Arab descent, are mostly not there. So, it’s a very specific kind of movement, and you could see it as a secular religious divide on some level, but there are religious people who come out, and there are also right-wing people who are coming out.
And one of the leaders or the faces of the protest movement is a former defense minister and chief of staff, “Bogie” Ya’alon, who oversaw many operations in Gaza, and is very much on the right. So it’s definitely not a right/left divide, as far as the protest movement. It’s much more like a liberal-urban, I think, more cosmopolitan divide, versus the more conservative right-wing in Israel.
JS: And right now, as we speak, there’s also, once again, attacks happening, settlers attacking Palestinians. You also had the incursion, once again, into Janine, in early July.
I’ve been hearing from a lot of Palestinians with different perspectives on this. There are some people who take a very hard line and say, “let it all burn, let Netanyahu do this, and it’ll finally expose that state for what it actually is.” And then you have other people who are pointing out what they perceive as the hypocrisy of the intensity of the protests.
Mariam Barghouti, for instance, the senior correspondent in Palestine for Mondoweiss, tweeted on Tuesday, “Israelis are upset that they’re being arrested, sprayed with skunk water, beaten for protesting against dictatorship laws. The Israeli protesters, soldiers, and armed forces beat us, shot us, sprayed our homes, bodies. Killed us for protesting ethnic cleansing.”
What’s your sense of the voices coming from Palestine and Palestinians, criticizing these protests along the lines that I just mentioned?
MZ: Yeah, even if you don’t go as far as the West Bank, if you just look at Palestinian citizens of Israel and why they aren’t showing up in big numbers — I mean, some of their leaders are calling them to come out, it’s not that they’re boycotting it per se — but for very similar reasons, which is that: Where were all these Jewish Israelis when Palestinians were shot in 2000, just before the Second Intifada started, Palestinian citizens were shot? Where were they when there were decisions made by the Supreme Court to prioritize Jewish land rights over Palestinian land rights? Again, I’m talking about within Israel, where everybody is a citizen.
So, in that sense, it’s similar. It’s the Palestinians who live in the West Bank, they’ve been living under occupation. They can’t vote for the people who control their lives, and for them, the situation is so bad. And, actually, even before this government came into power, the situation was getting, already, very bad. And the former defense minister outlawed six Palestinian civil society organizations as terrorist organizations.
All these things were happening even before this government came in, and then when this government started, it got even worse. And the trigger has been extremely, extremely hot.
There’s been more Palestinians killed in the last six months and last year than, I think, since the Second Intifada. It’s basically a consensus that if a Palestinian throws a stone at a soldier, he should be shot at, and they are being shot at in great numbers. And this is something that the protest movement isn’t addressing almost at all, except for the tiny minority, which is the anti-apartheid, anti-occupation bloc, which is really a tiny minority. It’s very important that they’re there.
But for Palestinians in the West Bank, some of this judicial overhaul stuff, as extreme as it could be, as far as the annexationist agenda, it doesn’t change the reality on the ground day to day. That continues apace regardless, and Israel has found many ways to kind of legalize what is illegal, and to de facto create realities on the ground that are extremely detrimental anyway. So, for them, the situation day-to-day is so bad already.
And, again, some of the Israelis that are protesting now, and are getting skunk water, or are getting police brutality, I mean, they’re getting like, the tiniest, tiniest taste of what Palestinians get on a daily basis. It’s also important to remember that Israelis have the freedom and the right to protest, whereas Palestinians in the West Bank don’t. Like, they literally don’t have a right to protest.
So, these are things that are not coming through clearly enough inside Israel. As impressive and important as the protest movement is, somehow they compartmentalized these issues. Even if you stop an Israeli protesting and ask him what he thinks about the occupation and the settlements, he’ll say: “Yeah, it’s horrible, it’s horrible, it’s horrible, but I’m fighting this fight right now, and this is the fight that I need to fight.”
So, that’s the unfortunate reality of it.
MH: You mentioned that the judiciary has been, at least to some degree, an impediment to this annexationist idea held by the right in Israel over the West Bank. With the judiciary out of the way, and with the annexation theoretically going forward in the future, what is the vision that they have for how the West Bank will be governed and controlled? And would it include permanent legal control of the Palestinians, or is the long-term vision to get Palestinians out of there by some means, slowly or quickly?
How do they actually see the idea of Israel controlling the West Bank in the long term?
MZ: It depends who you mean by “they,” and it depends who you ask.
Certain political parties, like the Religious Zionist Party headed by Smotrich, he is a radical Hilltop Youth-type, and he does have a clear platform of either taking over all of the West Bank areas, A, B, and C, annexing it, and then either those Palestinians have to kind of give in and be second hand citizens — I mean, not citizens, be subjects of Israeli rule — or leave, or be killed. I mean, that’s basically what his platform says, and that’s kind of, I think, the most extreme version of it.
And if you speak to certain radical settlers, they’ll say, “I realize Palestinians are here and they don’t want to leave, and that’s why I’m fighting with them to the bitter end, because they want the same thing that I want, they want to stay here.”
So, you have that, and then you have more moderate settlers, they’ll tell you different things. They’ll say that, based on the Oslo Accords, Area C, which is 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli control, that should remain part of an Israeli state. But A and B, which is where most of the urban centers are — Ramallah and Nablus — those places can become part of a Palestinian autonomous entity of some sort.
So, they’ll tell you that, or they’ll come up with different ways. Or they’ll say, you know, areas A and B can be, maybe, a state, I don’t know how that would work. And then if you ask them about Gaza, that’s a whole other story. I don’t know how they think that would work. I think most of them keep Gaza out, as if it’s just this separate entity that will somehow disappear if we ignore it.
So, it really depends on who you ask, and there are a lot of nuances between the different elements of the right. And the Likud Party headed by Netanyahu, he basically threatened annexation in 2020, and then went back on it because of the Abraham Accords. But if you look on the ground today, and also if you look at his promises when he formed this government, he basically said, we have the right to self-determination across the entire land, and we’re going to settle it as much as we want.
I think, basically, the difference on the right today — if we say that most of the West Bank will be under Israeli control, the question is whether Palestinians will be able to be citizens or not. And some think that they could be, and it would be like some kind of — the settlers will tell you. Like, yeah, they could become citizens, as long as they kind of respect that it’s a Jewish country, there’s a Jewish anthem, they’re a minority here.
Some of them will say that, but I think, in reality, you know, obviously, if you look at what happens inside 1948 Israel today, that’s not really going to be the case.
[Intercepted mid-show theme music.]
JS: I wanted to ask you about the U.S. response to this. Joe Biden, throughout his political career, has staked out a pretty aggressively pro-Israel stance, even relative to other really militant U.S. politicians. And Biden has also gotten in trouble for some of the claims that he’s made about his deep connection and relationships to famous Israeli politicians, Golda Meir and others, that turned out to either be not true or stretching the truth. And there also were reports in the early 1980s that Joe Biden passionately defended the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
So, I say all of this, not to just talk about history, but to say there’s a very long context for Joe Biden, personally. Also, there’s almost no one in the history of American politics that’s been in American politics longer than Biden. So, he’s been around long enough where I think we can pretty clearly see where his politics are.
And on this particular matter right now, on the one hand, the Biden White House has criticized Netanyahu, and you had his press spokesperson Karen Jean-Pierre, saying, quote, “It’s unfortunate that the vote took place today. It happened with the slimmest possible majority.” And then talking about the U.S.-Israel relationship, she said it remains strong, quote: “The core of that relationship is certainly on democratic values, shared democratic values and interests. And that will continue to be the case.”
But also, these reports saying that no one should expect Biden to take any actual concrete action against Israel over this judicial overhaul. And the quote from a U.S. official was, quote: “Rather than think about this in terms of consequences to our relationship, we think about our relationship as one where we don’t hesitate to express concerns.” That’s sort of a verbal gobbledygook that just is flowing out into the U.S. press.
But, Mairav, talk about The U.S. response to this, and the complexities or layers of it. Not just Biden as an individual, but the U.S. Stance in general right now.
MZ: Yeah. Biden does have a very strong relationship [with] Israel, even though his relationship with Netanyahu is much more strained, and as vice president under Obama, it was really not good. And I think he really dislikes Netanyahu, to put it mildly, but because he feels such a connection to Israel, I think it’s almost an emotional connection, where he does feel comfortable being very offended and hurt by the moves that Netanyahu is making, and feeling free to kind of share that, maybe, behind closed doors.
But, on this issue, similar to the issue of settlement expansion and the occupation, I don’t expect the U.S. to do anything about it, and that. And, ironically, Biden is well-positioned — maybe the most well-positioned president, because he is so pro-Israel — to actually take certain actions, whether on the judicial overhaul or on settlement expansion. He’s more pro-Israel than Obama was — who was a very pro-Israel president, despite some caveats, despite his anti-settlement stance — and even more pro-Israel than Trump, in some ways, because Biden hasn’t really undone a lot of what Trump did on Israel. And he’s a big cheerleader of the Abraham Accords, and he really has done almost nothing for the Palestinian-Israeli issue.
So, I don’t expect the U.S. to do much about it, but I do think that there are, obviously, changes happening on the ground in the Democratic Party, and there are former U.S. ambassadors like Dan Kurtzer who have come out saying, “alright, this is it, we can’t continue to give aid unconditionally to Israel if it’s just going to do whatever it wants with it.” You know, Israel is already very prosperous, it doesn’t need this.
But the issue here is that Biden isn’t doing this, not just because he cares or it’s emotionally involved for him. He’s doing it because the U.S. will have a much harder time supporting Israel politically and economically if it doesn’t look like a democracy, and that’s just the U.S. interest. And, of course, that’s problematic on many levels, but it makes Biden look bad. And it’s embarrassing for Biden, it’s embarrassing for the U.S., and it certainly is going to become more and more untenable within the Democratic Party to defend those issues.
But what’s also really frustrating is that Biden and the Biden administration, in the last few weeks, with the Tom Friedman articles and all of these phone calls, has kind of put a lot of political capital in this judicial overhaul issue. Which is fine, but he’s basically sending the message that, oh, OK, you need to maintain your liberal democratic mechanisms, but on the occupation stuff, whatever, you know? We’re not going to deal with that, we’re not going to put political capital into that. We just need you to look like a liberal democracy.
So, I find it to be very problematic. And I think that both the U.S. policy on this, and the media, more widely, is completely gobbling up this judicial overhaul stuff while completely not putting emphasis on what’s really happening on the ground. Which is that Palestinians are being killed at alarming rates, and that everything is being accelerated. And the issues that are happening within the ministries, and the way that they’re changing the authorities and the powers to do things on the ground is really where the attention — both policy- and media-wise — should be. And, instead it’s on this, which is, in some ways, a brilliant distraction that was created by the right.
MH: You mentioned earlier, too, that Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir have very powerful portfolios in the Israeli government, thanks to being part of Netanyahu’s coalition. Can you talk a bit about how they’re actually changing the legal and the security situation in the West Bank, given these relatively unprecedented portfolios they’ve been given?
MZ: Yeah. So, Ben-Gvir is the National Security Minister. It actually used to be called “Public Security Minister,” which is in charge of the police force, [but] now he’s changed it to National Security Minister. He’s a very, very good politician. He’s a populist, and he has now also taken under his wing the border police, which is technically under the IDF, so that is the major change that he’s made.
The border police are the ones who act on the ground in the West Bank. They have the policing authorities, as opposed to IDF soldiers, when something happens. So, for example, if a settler attacks a Palestinian, it is the border police who potentially should be coming in to do something about it; they almost never do. But, he has taken control over that force.
And just, even without that step, just the fact that Ben-Gvir, from the settlement of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, just the fact that he has become this minister in charge of the police — which, by the way, also affects how police act in Jerusalem, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque Temple Mount area compound. He’s gone up there several times. When he was first elected, that was the first thing that he did, and that has created not just anger and frustration amongst Palestinians, but in the entire Arab world, because you have a settler fanatic who is in charge of the holiest, some of the holiest sites for Muslims. So, just the fact that he’s reached this position is already extremely problematic and inflammatory.
And then, Smotrich, who is really kind of a very smart politician, he became the Minister of Finance, which is not what he wanted. But I think it’s basically just a cover for doing what he really wants to do, which is changing the way the military controls the West Bank and moving more and more of the military operations and controls into civilian authorities under him.
So, the civil administration, which is kind of the arm within the IDF that deals with the day-to-day lives of Palestinians, with permits, with infrastructure, with where they can build, where they have to just demolish, for Jews and Palestinians alike, this is where he has taken, now, the authority from the defense minister and from the IDF. And that is already having serious ramifications for the reality on the ground.
For example, Haaretz had a report now that Jewish construction that is normally demolished or evacuated in the first six months of this government is almost not happening at all. And he has a very clear platform of not allowing Palestinians to build anywhere, which is already pretty much the case, but certainly in Area C of the West Bank, he is now basically in charge of it. It’s like putting a cat in charge of the milk.
So, this is what we’re seeing on the ground. And you can also feel it as far as the — I think one of the most disconcerting trends that I’m following very closely is settler violence, which is very much a phenomenon done by settlers, but it’s also very much enabled passively and actively by the state, both the army and the defense ministry, and the police, and the government. They don’t charge these people, they don’t put them in jail. The number of investigations that are closed are 98.7 percent or something.
And the settlers who feel represented by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are completely emboldened, so that’s why you’ve seen, also, much larger numbers. Settler violence happens every day on various levels, but what we saw in February in Hawara, and just last month in Turmus Aya and Um Safa, and other places in the West Bank, is, basically, settlers who are armed civilians going in and terrorizing Palestinians, and they have the full backing of the government.
And when I say “full backing,” I mean that there’s a lot of ministers, including the two that I mentioned, who simply won’t condemn it, or they’ll stay silent, which is basically the same thing. So, it’s very dangerous and very problematic.
JS: It seems, Mairav — if it’s true what you’re saying, and it seems to be true — that one of the central goals of this law is to escalate annexation, to escalate further expulsion of Palestinians, the seizure of land. That, also, it could be that they now start meting out the death penalty in the judicial system against suspected terrorists or others.
But it does seem as though one of the consequences — and this could happen quite swiftly — is that the Palestinian Authority, which is already struggling for legitimacy even within Palestine itself, that their acceptability further diminishes. And you then have resistance groups, armed resistance groups escalate their responses to Israel, escalate their attacks. That this sort of leads to, potentially, another intifada.
And it seems like there are some forces in Palestine that would very much welcome Netanyahu doing this, because now the sort of moment of truth is going to be called. I mean, it seems like this could very, very quickly take an already horrifying situation and double its incendiary nature, or triple it. Very, very quickly.
MZ: I mean, everything that you just described is already happening on some level, right? The PA has basically lost legitimacy, it’s lost control of certain areas. Obviously, Israel has an interest in maintaining that it does, so it keeps it on this brink, but there are already resistance groups, armed groups, who aren’t affiliated, either with Fatah or Hamas.
So, you already have this happening. You have a vacuum of PA security forces in places like Jenin and Nablus. You have Israel going into Areas A much more, much more fervently. They are using aerial bombardments [now] in the West Bank, something that they didn’t do for 20 years.
So, you already have these [phenomena] taking place, and it does seem like the way in which this right wing government is headed, even though there are people who understand that. And, certainly, the military is opposed to the politicians. They very clearly understand why the collapse of the PA would be absolutely horrible for Israelis, and for Israeli security, and they’re working very hard to work against that. So, you actually have very clear tensions between the military and the political echelon. Also, on the judicial overhaul issues as well, as you see that there’s many reservists and combat pilots who are refusing to serve as a result.
So, you have these tensions building up, and Israel does seem to be headed towards further and further chaos. And something that’s very counterintuitive and counterproductive to wanting to maintain what, otherwise, has been, in the last 20 years, a very steady ability to somehow create this modicum of stability and security, while continuing to control, expand, dispossess Palestinians.
It’s done it fairly successfully, and now you have this — and it’s done it with impunity, and the international community has completely let it do so. And so, now you have a far-right government who’s kind of pushing the boundaries even further, and wants to take what is already de facto and turn it into something much more formal and de jure. And that is starting to create cracks and fissures in the system.
So, yeah. It does not bode well for anybody, and I think Israel doesn’t have a very good strategy, not for Gaza and not for the West Bank. It just doesn’t have a good alternative right now. And the PA is in shambles, and Palestinian political organization and the ability to organize is in shambles.
So, when you talk about the potential for an intifada — I mean, the intifada that we saw, the last two, maybe it won’t look that way anymore, because of the level of control, fragmentation, and surveillance that Israel has become so good at. It could be that what we’re seeing now, which is a lot more weapons being flushed through from Jordan to the West Bank, and just, like, 17-year-olds picking up a weapon, and with no agenda, and no affiliation, just shooting at soldiers. You could call that, already, a third intifada, if you’d like, but it’s definitely not good for anybody.
MH: You mentioned that, from the U.S. perspective, that it’s very important that Israel appears to be a democracy, and the trajectory that’s going on right now suggests that it will be less and less like that. And were there to be a collapse in the PA or annexation of the West Bank, certainly the chaos that projects from Israel will be greater.
From the perspective of the Israeli right, and given these discussions — even in the press in the U.S., increasingly, of cutting aid to Israel or conditioning aid to Israel — do they feel that the U.S. relationship is critical to their plans in the future? Or do they feel that they can hold on to that military and political relationship, regardless of how things may change in the West Bank?
Do they see this as a relationship to outgrow, I would say, or is it something that they expect to be there, regardless of what they pursue in the future?
MZ: If you talk to the practical right and the military right — which is a big chunk of the people who control the mechanisms of this country — they would say that, of course, the U.S.-Israel relationship is the most important thing.
I think the foreign ministry, even today, under Netanyahu’s foreign minister, that is their — I mean, it could be that it was the previous one. But their main goal is to maintain and strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. And if you talk to former military intelligence heads and heads of the Shin Bet, like, they’ll all agree that the biggest threat right now is: A, national unity, as a result of what’s happening, but B, the threat that U.S. will no longer support Israel in the same way.
So, the practical right, thinks that it’s necessary, it’s the most important kind of asset that Israel has. If you talk to the more nationalist far, settler, right, they’ve made comments about how we respect the U.S., of course, but we’re a sovereign country and we’ll do what we want.
I mean, you even had Naftali Bennett — who doesn’t live in a settlement, but is a pro-settler politician — talking about how Israel has become an economic power in the region, and it doesn’t really need U.S. aid in the same way that it did. And he actually wants to kind of wean Israel off of this aid in order to be able to do things with more currency.
You have kind of different perspectives, but I think the security apparatus and establishment is very, very concerned that the politicians in power — again, some of which have no security background at all, and the opposite, they have a background of attacking security forces in Israel — that they are completely undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that will hurt in the future.
And I think we are going to see — even if it’s not an announcement that the U.S. is going to stop aid, because I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon — but we probably could see little movements, the kinds that Obama even tried to do, which is to abstain from vetoing a U.N. resolution on settlements or things of this nature. And I think, probably, we can expect that to happen a bit more, but it won’t be formal. It will be very kind of tacit and piecemeal.
JS: This doesn’t often get mentioned, but part of what I think people need to understand about this $4 billion-plus in what is just universally referred to as “aid,” a lot of money that the U.S. is giving to Israel actually comes back to U.S. defense contractors and the war industry. It’s not just about the U.S.-Israel special relationship. There’s a capitalist dimension to this, there’s a war profiteering dimension to this, and there’s the military industrial complex in the United States, which benefits from it. And then, those companies are financing the election campaigns of many politicians in the United States, both Democrat and Republican. I just think it’s important to like put that on the table, because it’s surprising, but it just doesn’t often get mentioned.
Related to that aspect of this, Mairav, I wanted to ask you: is there anything about this current situation that can tell us anything about Israel’s posture right now, and the Netanyahu government, toward Iran? Is there any connection between this judicial move, this law, and Israel’s posture toward Iran at this moment?
MZ: Well, it’s funny, because the Iran issue is something that Netanyahu has built his career on. He went to Congress about it, and we actually haven’t heard him talking about Iran that much lately, even though we are in a moment in time where Iran could not be closer to a nuclear weapon, as a result of Trump, at his behest, pulling out of the JCPOA.
I mean, I’m not sure I see a direct connection, but I do see that Netanyahu has, for a long time … And we reached the point that we reached because he has been attacking civil society, inciting against Palestinians, and creating facts on the ground to build this conservative kind of camp. And also making relationships with the evangelicals and the Republicans, which would make it so that he doesn’t really need Joe Biden, because he can wait for the next election, he doesn’t even need him.
But, if you asked me specifically on the Iran issue, if Israel wants to build up a military power to strike Iran, or if it wants to build up a credible military threat with the U.S., then obviously what it’s doing now is counterintuitive to that, so I’m not really sure what Netanyahu’s strategy on that is. And, again, the security establishment is very much against Netanyahu and what he’s doing because, specifically, of this issue. That we need the U.S. to support, whether they do it with us or without us, we need U.S. support.
Part of Netanyahu’s foreign policy the last few years has been to build up what he would have hoped would have been an Arab NATO against Iran; that obviously isn’t happening. And his push for normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think, is part of this effort, and [also] part of a way to detract from his domestic issues, because I don’t think it’s something that is going to happen anytime in the near future.
So, I think he may be using the judicial overhaul, and let’s not forget he’s on trial for corruption. Using those issues to kind of detract, and then come back to the Iran issue when it’s convenient for him. But if you look at the practical approach, he’s not really doing what a responsible kind of adult who wants to make sure that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon should be doing.
So, I don’t know if that’s him being irrational, or him just worrying only about his own political survival, but it doesn’t really seem to add up. Just,
JS: Just one follow up on that. I’m curious — this isn’t so much about the so-called judicial reform — but the general, Netanyahu’s view of China’s recent very clear assertion of itself as a major diplomatic player in the world. You mentioned the normalization, the move to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. Well, China steps in and brokers this agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. China is positioning itself potentially to be the one country that possibly would have the credibility to bring the Russia-Ukraine war to an end.
I’m curious about your analysis of how this impacts Israel, and Netanyahu, specifically. How does Netanyahu see China’s most recent moves, in a really kind of unprecedented assertion of itself, as not just a premier economic power, but also a diplomatic power in the world?
MZ: I think it has yet to be seen whether China will be a diplomatic power, and I think it has yet to be seen whether this Iran-Saudi rapprochement actually goes through.
If you talk to foreign ministry officials here, they’ll surprisingly say that … They’ll both be skeptical about where it’s going, and they’ll say that, even if it does go through, it won’t change the fundamental divide and resentment between Saudi and Iran. But they’ll tell you that the landscape in the Gulf and in the Arab world is only opening, for Israel and for everybody. And Israel, just like Arab countries are hedging, they’re hedging against the U.S.
And, for example, the fact that the Biden administration has boycotted, effectively, not only Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, but also Netanyahu, by not inviting him to the White House. The Israeli interpretation of that is, well, look at how the U.S. is treating its closest ally. When the Emiratis or Bahrain looks at that, they’ll say, why would we trust the U.S. if this is what it’s doing to Israel? So, in a sense, Israel doesn’t think that the U.S. is serving its interests at all by doing that.
China’s role is kind of a wild card right now, and we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s very clear that the Israeli and Arab analysis of what’s happening in the last few years — and specifically under Biden — is that we cannot rely on the U.S. anymore. It’s not interested in the Middle East, it’s not prioritizing us, so we’re going to have to look elsewhere.
MH: I want to ask you one final question, it goes back to something you mentioned a bit earlier.
In Israeli society, there are these very stark social divisions. Obviously between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, but also among different sectors of Israeli Jewish society as well. And these protests have, in many ways, opened up a fissure between the more socially liberal Ashkenazi Jews — put very broadly — and then Mizrahis and others, who are more conservative in different ways.
How may Israeli society change on a social level were this check by the Supreme Court removed? And, if Israel’s society becomes more conservative or more overtly religious, how may that manifest in terms of how Israel portrays itself in the outside world?
And you use a very important word, which is the sense of betrayal on the part of the more liberal sector of society. What is the actual practical manifestations of that, or how could it manifest, going forward with this law in place?
MZ: There’s several things to address, so I hope that I reach all of them
The betrayal by the liberal camp in Israel is the fear that their secular lifestyle, their progressive lifestyle, their … I mean, in certain places in Israel, or most places in Israel, there’s a fairly liberal and progressive approach to, for example, women’s rights, gay rights, things like that.
So, I think there’s a real fear that those issues that specifically affect women, more than anything else, because of the religious determination to kind of anchor a certain aspect of Jewish law and theocracy into everyday life … Separation, let’s say, of women in [the] public sphere, and stuff like that. There’s a real fear that that could happen. So, they’re fighting on the streets for that.
And then, yeah, I don’t know if the judiciary will actually be gone as a check, and I think there is a strong enough movement here that will fight for that to remain in place. But I think what we’re generally seeing as a trend in Israel, and it’s also a demographic trend, first of all, lots of secular educated Israelis are leaving. I mean, a lot of the people I used to be friends with here have left. And everybody who I know who works on the issues of progressive rights, occupation, are considering leaving. And it’s not necessarily just because of Israel’s human rights violations, it’s because the traffic is really bad, the prices are really high, and the education system is absolutely awful.
So, there’s just a feeling that the country is kind of falling apart. And if you look at Jerusalem as an example, you have a city that is occupied, annexed, has almost 40 percent of it Palestinian, and they’re not citizens, they’re residents. And then you have religious Jews, and much, much [fewer] secular Jews than you used to have. And cultural institutions, and non-kosher restaurants that have shut down, because there are no longer enough people who want to go out and see them.
So, the Jerusalem issue is kind of, I think, a microcosm of what we could start to see in the rest of the country. Which is a tribal reality, where people are in their silos, and where the government becomes more and more religious and right-wing, and more and more people who can will leave.
So, I think that’s the general trend, but some people are calling what we see now a civil war, so you could see this reaching ahead with this judicial overhaul legislation. I don’t know if the government is going to continue or it’s going to take a break, now, after this one, because … I mean, the next military operation, whether it’s Lebanon, Gaza, something is going to have to give at some point, and they’re going to have to see what happens.
But the divisions are continuing to become wider and wider, and also the economy in Israel, which has been so strong for so long, the occupation has actually only helped Israel’s economy, it hasn’t hurt it. If the economy — which people are warning — is going to get hurt as a result of Israel no longer appearing to be a democracy in the West, that could have serious repercussions. If Israelis can’t go and have fun in Greece, and Europe, and other places — Thailand, and India, where they like to go because they don’t have enough money to do it — then, you know, that could change the situation.
Ironically, you have a weird reverse form of BDS that could happen, where Israelis no longer have the ability to enjoy life in the same way. If that starts to happen, then you’re going to see some dramatic shifts.
JS: I want to just sneak in one last question: is there a scenario where Netanyahu’s government falls as a result of this?
MZ: I mean, in Israel, there’s always a scenario for everything.
The right has been, even just yesterday, they basically threatened to overthrow the government if Netanyahu doesn’t go through with his judicial overhaul. But they would have to have much to gain from collapsing this coalition. All the people in the coalition at this point have more to lose from going to elections than to gain. Maybe in the near future that could change, but it’s very hard to see how it’s going to be toppled at this point, even though there’s a lot of infighting between them.
The thing is that, even if it is toppled —it’s a possible scenario — another election wouldn’t necessarily create a much different result, and that’s kind of the loop that Israel has been in for a long time. So, some of the movements that come out of these protests could form political parties, but it’s just too early to tell.
JS: Mairav, thank you very much for being with us here on Intercepted.
MZ: Thank you so much for having me.
[Intercepted end-show theme music.]
MH: That was Mairav Zonszein, an Israeli American journalist and commentator based in Tel Aviv. She’s currently the senior Israel analyst for the International Crisis Group.
JS: And that does it for this episode of Intercepted.
Intercepted is a production of The Intercept. José Olivares is the lead producer. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. Roger Hodge is editor in chief of The Intercept. Rick Kwan mixed our show, and this episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
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Thank you so much for joining us. Until next time, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
MH: And I’m Murtaza Hussain.