The growth of extremist religious ideologies in Israeli politics and moves to water down judicial independence threaten to make the country more authoritarian, Middle East experts have warned as hundreds of thousands of Israelis take to the streets in protest.

Changes proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition would limit the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court to overrule legislature and the executive. It would also give coalition lawmakers more power to appoint judges.

The proposals, which have coincided with increased settler violence against Palestinians and provocative statements from hardline ministers in the government, have been met with mass protests in Israel throughout the week, as well as others in the occupied territories and globally.

Since the start of 2023 as of March 30, 86 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed according to the United Nations, as tensions amongst civilians continue to escalate.

Leading Jewish historian Simon Shama claims the country is on its way to becoming a ‘nationalist theocracy’ and described recent violent attacks on Palestinians as well as police imposed force on Israeli demonstrators and the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories, as a ‘threat to democracy’.

“There is a fear among more secular groups in Israel of a real threat that the government is shifting from somewhat of a democratic system where government and judiciary is separate, to more of  a dictatorship,” Dr Ahmad Attoun, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told Central News.

“The Israeli government since the latest elections has been leaning heavily towards right-wing extremism and this is in fact a reflection of the general opinion in Israel.

“We can see this through the political parties that won votes, such as those involving ministers like (Itamar) Ben-Gvir and (Bezalel) Smotrich.”

This week, the months-long issue grew as mass protests and strikes erupted across the country in response to Netanyahu’s decision to fire Israeli defence minister, Yaov Gallant, who was the first senior member of the cabinet to speak out against the judicial overhaul.

Crowds of blue and white gathered outside of Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, before marching on the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – as the state deployed police officers and soldiers to control protesters.

The widespread protests forced Netanyahu to announce the plans for the judicial overhaul would be delayed, while a compromise was reached.

There has been an international backlash to comments made by Israel’s finance minister Smotrich, calling for the government to “wipe out” an entire Palestinian village in response to the murder of two Israelis.

And last week, Smotrich declared at a private memorial in Paris, that Palestinian people are “an invention from the past”.

“There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language.” He spoke during his speech.

“Both Ben Gvir and Smotrich are essentially radicals who specialise in creating chaos,” said Dr Eyal Mayroz, a senior lecturer for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.

Israel’s government has been hijacked by radical nationalist elements that yield today much more power than their electoral weight.

Like Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, is another far-right figure in the cabinet known to advocate for the complete seizure of occupied Palestinian territories and has previously shown support for Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish Israeli man who carried out a shooting at Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque  in 1994, killing 29 Palestinians.

“[This is] by far the most right-wing extremist government Israel has ever had. Israel’s government has been hijacked by radical nationalist elements that yield today much more power than their electoral weight.”

Dr Attoun and fellow lawmaker Ayman Daraghmeh, both of whom have been detained in Israeli prisons, said high profile ministers in Netanyahu’s government are affiliated with political parties known for extreme right-wing policies, such as Kahanism. 

Kahanism is an extremist religious Zionist ideology which holds the view that most Arabs living in Israel are enemies as well as advocates for a Jewish theocratic state in which non-Jewish citizens have no voting rights.

“Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are both known to uphold Kahanist policies, which is essentially a political ideology that was deemed a terrorist organisation even by the United States of America,” said Dr Attoun.

The Otzma Yehudit party led by Ben-Gvir currently holds six seats in the Israeli government since the 2022 elections, making it the third largest party in the coalition. 

This comes as the 37th government of Israel had been sworn in December last year after a four-year political crisis in Israel which saw the Knesset hold five snap elections between 2018 and 2022.

“Statements like the one made by Smotrich coming from such a high profile minister is an indication for the level of religious and ideological extremism in Israel,” Dr Daraghmeh said, and that this hindered any potential solution for the conflict.

Dr Attoun added: “These statements unfortunately are not wrongful comments made here and there, these are genuine ideologies that they believe in and have been raised upon.”

This has not been the only cause for backlash against the government of Israel as authorities begin to face internal criticism and resistance over the coalition’s latest demands for amendment in the country’s judicial system.

The nation faces a “disintegration of the political and social compact” Schama said, expressing his concerns over the Netanyahu coalition’s decision to implement a judicial overhaul, which would reduce the power of the Supreme Court and allow the government more control over the country’s judiciary.

Marcelo Zvirksy, a senior lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Inquiry at the University of Wollongong, said the coalition government’s proposed amendments to the Israeli judicial system would “increase representation of politicians at the expense of professional appointees, as well as to cancel the principle of seniority in the Supreme court”. 

“Judicial independence just went out the window,” Dr Zvirsky told Arena magazine. 

“Vocal figures in the protest movement have made clear that this is not the time for Palestinian issues and the occupation to be raised. Salvaging a Jewish-only democracy makes sense for those who have enjoyed its benefits.”

Dr Daraghmeh said the government’s right-wing extremism has been seeping into the Knesset, which poses a danger to the democratic system that the country runs on. 

This sentiment was shared alongside thousands of demonstrators who took to the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem over the past few weeks in opposition to the government, accusing the coalition of a ‘power-grab’, and were met with rampant police crackdowns.

Dr Mayroz said the demonstrations in Israel were impressive by Israeli standards, however the numbers in reality represent only a fraction of the total population and “feature people who are overwhelmingly against the government in the first place”.

“The public remains more aligned with the right wing than the left,” he said.

Main image Canva montage of video screenshots.