Israeli protests: The clash of competing settler-colonial visions

The weeks-long demonstrations in Israel reflect the conflict within a settler society over how to handle the indigenous ‘demographic threat’.

People take part in a demonstration against the government in Tel Aviv
People take part in a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government's plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on April 1, 2023 [Reuters/Ronen Zvulun]

It has been two weeks now since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu postponed the controversial judicial reform process his cabinet had introduced. The delay did not have the desired effect and protests against his government have continued. On Saturday, hundreds of thousands of Israelis marched, demanding that the proposed legislation be scrapped altogether.

In Western media, the weeks-long standoff between protesters backed by the Israeli opposition and Netanyahu’s coalition of far-right and ultra-religious parties has been presented as a clash between the supporters of democracy and the forces of fascism.

But a closer look at the motivations of the protesters and the establishment on one side and the far-right government on the other reveals the Israeli anxiety about a perceived Palestinian “demographic threat” and a struggle between two different approaches to tackle it.

Containing the ‘demographic threat’

The aim of the Zionist movement has always been the colonisation of all of historic Palestine. But as the Zionist forces vied for control of all Palestinian lands, they always faced one major challenge: demography. The Palestinian population was the majority within the borders of Palestine, so as they sought to establish a state, Zionists carried out a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign, killing 15,000 Palestinians and forcefully expelling at least 750,000 between 1947 and 1949.

But even after the Nakba, the newly founded Israeli state continued to perceive the Palestinians as a demographic threat to its settler-colonial project. This anxiety only increased after the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza following the 1967 war.

The occupation gave the Israeli state the opportunity to aggressively expand the construction of Jewish settlements in new parts of historic Palestine, which was accompanied by the violent suppression of the indigenous Palestinian population. Israeli brutality fuelled Palestinian anger, which eventually boiled over in the first Intifada of 1987.

The ensuing violence drew much international attention towards the crimes Israel was committing as an occupying power and its constant violation of international law. Meanwhile, Israel was plagued by a deepening economic crisis and an escalating political struggle between the Labour party, which had monopolised power since the founding of the state, and its right-wing challenger, Likud.

The Labour leadership felt that not only was its political survival at stake but also the survival of the Israel settler-colonial project. That is why it resorted to a major transformation of the judicial and economic sectors in order to rebrand the country as a “liberal democracy” and regain Western approval and thus international legitimacy.

In the 1980s, under the leadership of Shimon Peres, the Labour government opened the Israeli economy to the global market. In 1992, it pushed through the Knesset the so-called Basic Laws, which strengthened the normative value of human rights and eventually empowered the Supreme Court to review legislation and strike it down if it contravened these laws. This came to be known as Israel’s “constitutional revolution”.

In 1993, the Labour government formed by Yitzhak Rabin started negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) under United States mediation and eventually signed the Oslo Accords, which commenced the so-called “peace process” between the Israelis and the Palestinians and eventually led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The passage of the Basic Laws allowed Israel to whitewash its occupation, presenting itself as a human rights champion, while the Oslo Accords covered up its oppression of the Palestinians with the language of “peace negotiations”. Furthermore, the PA allowed the Israeli state to control the Palestinian population while not having to worry about providing it with basic services.

Thus, the Labour government controlled the Palestinian “demographic threat” and eased international pressure to stop illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

But not everyone agreed with Labour’s approach. The Israeli right opposed the “peace talks” with the PLO, arguing that any compromise with the Palestinians would endanger what they saw as the Jewish people’s sovereignty over historic Palestine. Their incitement against their Labour opponents led to Rabin’s assassination in 1995.

A civil war between settlers?

The current protests against Netanyahu’s “judicial reform” – which aims to undo the 1992 “constitutional revolution” – are just the latest iteration of the struggle between the Israeli right and the centrist establishment built by Labour. The Israeli extreme right wants to undo the judiciary’s power in order to facilitate its own plan to address the “demographic problem”.

It wants to accelerate Jewish settlement-building, annex the occupied Palestinian territories, and forcefully displace more Palestinians from their lands. For all of this to proceed at a quick pace, the Israeli state, politics, and policies need to be decoupled from liberal values and human rights rhetoric.

The approach of the centrist establishment is not to reject ethnic cleansing but to control its course and dress it in the rhetoric of law and respect for human rights. From their perspective, the right-wing “solution” is detrimental to the Israeli settler-colonial project. In their view, weakening the judiciary and by extension, the perceived democratic order and rule of law in the country, could diminish Israel’s soft power and undermine its international legitimacy.

The centrist establishment fears that it will transform Israel into a pariah state and lead to its isolation – the way apartheid South Africa was isolated. The protests of the past 14 weeks are an expression of this fear.

Israel is not the only settler-colonial state to have faced an internal conflict due to a perceived “demographic threat”.

Its biggest ally, the United States, itself has been through such an upheaval. Among the factors that led to the 1861-1865 US Civil War were the competing visions for how to handle demography in the settler-colonial federation.

The white American elites were deeply concerned about the growing number of Black people brought in as slaves from Africa who could challenge white dominance. While in the North, they thought the solution to the “problem” was to stop bringing in more slaves, in the South, the owners of labour-intensive farms did not want to give up on the free labour that slavery provided and instead thought physical subjugation was enough.

Furthermore, as the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous people progressed westward, there was disagreement about how to approach building and expanding white settlements on newly occupied land. While the Northerners wanted this process to provide labour opportunities for whites only, the Southerners wanted to bring in slaves.

The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency and his plans for legislation that Southerners thought would go against their interests encouraged them to move toward secession, which led to the Civil War.

Of course, the circumstances in Israel today are quite different from the 19th-century US, and an actual armed conflict between the two sides is unlikely. Given the common Zionist ideology, no side is likely to seek “secession”.

But the current conflict is having a destabilisng effect on the Israeli state and may even disrupt its settler colonial project. The far-right which is dominating Netanyahu’s government is unlikely to give up power or renounce its plan to decouple the Israeli state from “liberal values”; the establishment is also unlikely to let go of its grip on the Israeli state, even if its strategy is failing before its eyes.

The longer this upheaval continues, the more the liberal façade of the Israeli state will be eroded and its criminal occupation exposed. This further legitimises the Palestinian struggle and the campaign to abolish the Israeli apartheid regime. While the settler-colonial project in the US survived the clash between settlers, in Israel, it may not.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.