It’s been a monumental week in Israel–from near-total shutdown and paralysis on Monday to the quiet respite of the past few days. But the crisis of Israeli democracy is far from over.
Since assuming office in January, 2023, the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has focused almost exclusively on drastically changing the balance of power between the different branches of government in Israel. In three months, the far-right, ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist coalition has blitzed the country with 141 legislative proposals, most of which are aimed at significantly weakening the country’s Supreme Court, and giving almost unlimited powers to the governing parties.
But while the coalition claims to have the legal, political and moral right to make the regime changes because they hold a majority in the Knesset, the changes are opposed by large numbers, perhaps even a majority, of the Israeli public. Knowing that Israel already suffers from a lack of checks and balances between the branches of government, the protesters are fearful of what they believe will lead to, at best, an illiberal majoritarian pseudo-democracy. Few in Israel would argue against any form of legislative restraint on the judiciary, recognizing that inadvertently and in the absence of a constitution, the courts have come to play an oversized role in decisions that are essentially political and that Israel’s political structure suffers from many defects. But fundamental regime changes, the protesters say, must be undertaken carefully, and not through coercion or blitz that leave no room for public discussion or even comprehension.
For 12 consecutive weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis from across the political, social and economic spectrum have taken to the streets in opposition to the government’s plans to destabilize core democratic values. There have been hundreds of protests throughout the country, with fewer than a dozen incidents of violence reported.
Seemingly daily, additional sectors and groups have expressed their collective opposition to the legislative offensive and have joined the demonstrations. The technology sector was one of the first, followed by IDF reservists from almost all of the military branches, including pilots, volunteers in Military Intelligence’s Special Operations Division and cyberwarfare units, and soldiers and officers from other elite combat units. The Bank of Israel, commercial banks, and most of Israel’s commercial sector have joined in, as have medical professionals and the universities.
Calls for a hiatus, or at least a slowdown in the legislative carpet bombing, came from unexpected places. Even the Kohelet Policy Forum, whose experts helped shape the legislation, couches its support for the reform in conditional terms. Michael Sarel, the think tank’s top economist, has gone public with warnings of the reform’s potentially dire consequences for Israel’s economy and its democratic institutions if it passes as is.
Even Miriam Adelson, the publisher of the free, mass-circulation newspaper Israel Today, the widow of Sheldon Adelson and a staunch supporter of Netanyahu, wrote in a column, “Slow down! It is important to ensure that all sides emerge from this argument with heads held high.” Likud lawmaker David Bitan, also a strong Netanyahu supporter, told Kan, the national broadcaster, “What we need to do is soften the reform, and we will do it—we have no choice. We need to stop the legislation for a week or two,” he added. The Sephardic Chief Rabbi called on the Likud and Religious Zionism parties to be sensitive to the protesters and slow the process down.
But until last week the coalition had shown no signs of softening, making it clear that they would ram the changes through no matter what. Concurrently, it stepped up its rhetoric against the demonstrators, calling them “anarchists,” “traitors” and agents of the enemy, claiming that they were merely dupes funded by foreign sources, including the U.S. government. Speaking of the combat soldiers, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi declared, “The Jewish people will manage without you and you can go to hell. The reform will move forward and advance.”
Building for weeks, the tensions reached crisis proportions at 9 p.m. this past Sunday, March 26, when Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a retired general, warned that the legislation was tearing apart the military and threatening its combat readiness. And for that, Netanyahu fired him.
Gallant is not a particularly well known politician, and his positions veer right of center. But he is well regarded for his vast experience and levelheadedness. Netanyahu’s decision to fire him was seen as brazen, irrational, vindictive and dictatorial.
Within minutes, mobile phones began to buzz. Texts were flying through the air (Israelis love Whatsapp and most are members of numerous Whatsapp groups) as people called on each other to turn off Netflix, get out of their warm beds, and get out and protest.
By 10 p.m., tens of thousands of Israelis were protesting. Within a few hours, their numbers reached hundreds of thousands. It was an unprecedented, inspiring testament to their political strength and democratic determination. For hours, they closed down main intersections and thoroughfares. The crowds were socially diverse, and the large numbers of young people, who until now had not been particularly recognized for their political activity, were striking. Their mood was determined and almost rave-like. Inspired by their own spontaneity, they sang a new ditty that seemingly everyone knew: “…you picked on the wrong generation.” On the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, they lit small campfires and pulled out guitars and portable coffee kits.
On Monday, the Histadrut, the nation’s largest labor union, called for a national strike in support of the protests. The universities, most civilian services, including nonessential health services, and even the airport shut down. By Monday evening, in a televised address, Netanyahu told the nation that he had ordered a “time-out” in the legislative overhaul. The duration of the promised “hiatus” is unknown.
Meanwhile, one of the most important components of the judicial overhaul—a bill giving the government absolute control of the appointment of Supreme Court judges—has already passed its first reading in the Knesset and could be brought to a final vote with only a few hours’ notice.
Israel has slowed down, but it has not yet backed away from the brink. The protest groups have vowed to continue to demonstrate, and the supporters of the judicial overhaul have vowed to continue to push through their agendas.
Top image: A protest against the right-wing judicial overhaul in Haifa. Photo credit: Hanay, via Wikimedia, CC 3.0