They were presented as the principled and relatively youthful faces of Israel’s protest movement against judicial reform. Shira Eting (left), Omri Ronen (right) and Ron Scherf (centre) were recently the subject of an uncritical interview on the flagship 60 Minutes newsmagazine show on America’s CBS network. Wearing olive green t-shirts indicating they are members of a politically activist group of military reservists they condemned Israel's right wing coalition government. In their view its judicial reform package is a threat to democracy.
At the start they outlined the elite roles they played during their military service. Eting was a combat helicopter pilot, Ronen was an officer in an elite commando unit and Scherf was a commander in the special forces.
Of course the fact they played such roles says nothing in itself about the validity of their arguments. However, it was notable that Lesley Stahl, the show’s veteran presenter, failed to ask why members of Israel’s elite are apparently campaigning for democracy. If democracy is taken to mean rule by the people – as it is in its classic definition - then it begs the question of why these members of the elite are apparently campaigning for it. After all anyone who knows Israeli society will recognise that such roles have tremendous prestige and are often the gateway to the best jobs.
One possible answer could be that Eting, Scherf and Ronen are exceptions. That despite being members of the elite they are campaigning for the interests of the majority. But that is decidedly not the case. The leadership of Israel’s protest movement is dominated by elite figures both from the military and the successful high technology sector. They are at the core of what is often referred to as Israel as a Start-Up Nation.
I will outline more details in the postscript below but the broad trends should be clear. Almost every former director of the Mossad (external intelligence services) and Shin Bet (internal intelligence service) has expressed public support for the protests. So have senior members and former members of Sayeret Matkal (Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s SAS). The high tech sector – the most dynamic and wealthiest part of Israel’s economy – is overwhelmingly behind the protests – as are most of Israel’s larger companies. Externally President Joe Biden has publicly supported the goals of the protest movement several times.
Under the circumstances it should not be surprising that Israel’s “democracy” movement is not democratic at all. At least not if democracy is defined by its traditional meaning of rule by the demos (people). The classic notion of democracy, if mentioned at all, is derided as “thin” or dismissed in other ways.
Instead, in an Orwellian twist, democracy is taken to mean imposing limits on popular sovereignty. For example, Yuval Noah Harari, perhaps Israel’s best known intellectual figure, has described it as being about checks and balances. The notion of the demos being sovereign seems to have escaped his attention. Essentially the goal of Harari and the other protest leaders is to have the popular will constrained by Israel's immensely powerful supreme court.
Although the government’s proposed reform package is complex the basic principle is simple. The protestors want the 15 supreme court justices to have the final say in political decision-making. That is they want a particular form of minority control rather than the majority having the ultimate say in politics. They say they believe in checks and balances but they do not want any on the supreme court.
Strangely, for historical reasons I will not go into here, the protest movement is often identified as representing the left. That is despite the fact that its core constituency is the elite of the Israeli military and business. This adds another Orwellian twist to the discussion.
All this begs the question of why the conflict over reform suddenly blew up in January. Why was there not a heated disagreements before that?
The immediate answer is that a right wing coalition government with a decisive majority in the Knesset (parliament) was formed in the aftermath of the November 2022 election. That followed several indecisive election results. The government was then sworn in in late December and announced its reform package shortly afterwards.
But there are also deeper forces at work. Usually these are perceived in demographic terms. The birth rates of secular Israelis (who tend to be in broad terms on the left) are substantially lower than the exceptionally high levels in the national religious and haredi (ultra-orthodox) communities. Therefore, if everything else was equal, Israeli politics would be expected to continue on a long-term rightward trend.
This helps explain the anxieties of the protest movement. They tend to loath the bulk of the Israeli pubic. One of the particular fears of secular Israelis is that religious restrictions will increasingly impinge on their lives. There is some basis to this concern but the democratic response would be for those who are secular to make their case with the public rather than rely on unelected judges.
In a positive sign it finally seems that some in the protest movement are recognising their demographic assumptions are flawed. There is no straightforward relationship between birth rates and politics. A widely circulated article in Haaretz argued correctly that demography is not destiny. For one thing many religious Jews have become less observant or not religious at all over time. Substantially more than have moved in the opposite direction.
Nevertheless there is still a common perception among the protest movement that demographic trends are moving, from its perspective, in the wrong direction. Combined with their pessimism about making their case to the wider Israeli public this means they are more prone to seeking undemocratic solutions. This at least partly explains the rise of the protest movement.
An alternative explanation advanced recently blames Israel’s constitutional and social crisis on the rise of a new right. According to this argument Israel’s mainstream right was at least reasonable but the new right is hawkish and illiberal. Naturally it puts a lot of emphasis on senior far right figures in Israel’s coalition government such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich.
While the rise of far right element within the Israeli coalition government is significant this explanation exaggerates its importance. It is not accurate to characterise the entire current Israeli government, as some do, as far right. In any event the case for the thrust of the judicial reforms is a democratic one. To give back ultimate sovereignty to the Israeli people. Essentially its aim is to return Israel to the situation that existed before the 1990s when the court increasingly took on a judicially activist role. The left’s rejection of the reform initiative is itself an indication of a profound intolerance.
The best way to characterise Israel’s protest movement is as a revolt of the elites. This is to follow the formulation of Christopher Lasch (1932-1994), an American social critic, who wrote a book on that theme published in 1994. It described how an increasingly mobile and global elite felt out of touch with the rest of American society.
In general terms this is true of Israeli society today. Israel’s high tech elite tends to feel more comfortable with its counterparts in California and elsewhere then with many of its fellow Israelis. In many cases elite Israelis, who tend to be secular, look down at their more traditional and religious compatriots as irredeemably backward. From this elite premise it therefore makes perfect sense that a small band of unelected judges should have the ultimate say in Israeli politics.
But Israel in the twenty-first century differs in a crucial respect from the America that Lasch wrote about in the 1990s. Israel faces imminent security threats from Palestinian Islamist groups, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran. All of them have openly threatened to destroy Israel.
This means that the current conflict in Israeli society is far more than a culture war. The fact that the left dominates the upper echelons of the military means that its threats to withdraw from military service pose immediate dangers. They weaken the ability of Israel to defend itself against existential threats. Israel’s revolt of the elites could have devastating consequences for the country.
Postscript – Israel’s military elite [For those who want more details]
Those who have served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sometimes continue as reservists. This used to be widely applied but nowadays it is normally those with key roles such as intelligence, pilots and special forces who volunteer. There are often in turn close ties between those who volunteer for such roles and Israeli’s high technology sector
In relation to the CBS 60 Minutes programme: Shira Eting is also an Oxford university graduate, a former associate at McKinsey management consultancy and a principal at Vintage Investment Partners. Omri Ronen was a captain in in the Maglan special forces unit. Ron Scherf was a lieutenant colonel in Sayeret Matkal.
Former IDF chiefs of staff who have publicly opposed the reform programme include Ehud Barak (also a former prime minister and a former Sayeret Matkal officer), Dan Halutz and Moshe Yaalon (also a former defence minister and a former commander of Sayeret Matkal).
Former Mossad directors who have publicly supported the protest movement include Danny Yatom (1996-1998), Efraim Halevy (1998-2002), Tamir Pardo (2011-16)and Yoram Cohen (2016-2021). The only exception I have found is Meir Dagan (2002-11) who died in 2016.
Former Shin Bet chief who have supported the protest movement include Carmi Gillon (1995-6), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Yuval Diskin (2005-2011), Yoram Cohen (2011-16) and Nadav Argaman (2016- 2021). The exception is Avi Dicther (2000-2005) who is a government minister in the Likud party.
Hundreds of reservists from the 8200 intelligence unit – responsible for signals intelligence and code decryption – have opposed the reforms - as have many pilots and other air force personnel.
A leading business forum went on strike against the reasonableness law, the first element of the reform package, as did high tech firms such as Lemonade, Papaya Global, Wix and Wiz.
PHOTO: Screengrab from the CBS website.