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Israeli protests: Government forced to put judicial reform on hold

Mar 28, 2023 | Ran Porat

Protests against judicial reforms in Tel Aviv (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Protests against judicial reforms in Tel Aviv (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Monash Lens – 28 March 2023

 

In a dramatic televised address, Israeli PM Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu announced yesterday (27 March) that he was putting his government’s controversial judicial reform package on hold until the resumption of the next session of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, beginning on 30 April.

The government and the opposition will use the next week for intense negotiations to try to find a compromise on reforming the balance of power between the judiciary and the executive, and more specifically, the procedures for nomination of judges. Hopes are that the talks can be a starting point for healing a very divided nation.

Netanyahu’s statement was a response to unprecedented scenes a day earlier, as hundreds of thousands of protesters spontaneously blocked major roads and clashed with the police in Tel Aviv, while in Jerusalem, huge numbers of people marched towards the Knesset, and demonstrated outside the houses of ministers and the PM’s official residence.

Meanwhile, a statewide general strike was declared that looked likely to shut down most of the country.

This was the climax of 12 consecutive weeks of widespread protest against the judicial overhaul proposals.

Yesterday’s volcano of anger from Israelis from all walks of life was sparked by Netanyahu’s sacking of his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, on the evening of Sunday, 26 March.

Hours earlier, Gallant had issued a stark warning that unless the government paused the procedures to enact the legal reform, Israel would face “a clear and present danger” to its security.

Gallant was mirroring in public what he, and the PM, have heard behind closed doors from the chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and other heads of Israel’s security organisations – that the intense and emotional disagreement over the judicial reform plan had now penetrated deep into the ranks of the army, and was threatening to undermine the IDF’s ability to function.

The birth of a patriotic liberal camp

Israel has known fiery waves of demonstrations in the past, such as the extensive right-wing protest against the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians during 1990s, and the anger against Israeli withdrawals from territories later handed over to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005, which necessitated the forced evacuation of Israeli citizens from their residences in those areas.

To many in the Israeli right, including members of the current government, the failure of those demonstrations to stop the then government’s moves remain an open, painful wound.

That is part of the reason ministers in Netanyahu’s right-wing government have dismissed the protestors as anarchists, and refused to compromise, citing the fact that no such flexibility happened when “the other side” was in power during the Oslo years.

Yet, unlike past protests, this time the anti-reform camp succeeded in forcing the government to put its actions on hold.

What was the secret of the success of this mostly independent protest, only loosely led by the opposition parties in the Knesset?

The leaders of the anti-reform movement were able to crack the code for applying real pressure on the government with a strategy based on three concepts:

  • The main message that led to the amalgamation of a patriotic liberal camp: The anti-reform camp convinced Israelis that the judicial overhaul is an attack on democracy by weakening the courts, and specifically the Supreme Court, considered the bastion protecting human rights in Israel.The government, on the other hand, failed to refute the slogan that its program, along with other government bills and public attacks on the press, was a step towards dictatorship, or “illiberal democracy”, in a similar fashion to what has happened recently in Hungary and Poland.
  • Physically rallying around the flag: Anti-reform processions have turned into a sea of blue and white Israeli national flags in a clear sign of patriotism. While the issue of women’s rights was also somewhat at the forefront of the protests (with women dressed up as characters from The Handmaid’s Tale), other groups have been sidelined to avoid inner dissent, including LGBTQI rights, and particularly groups focused on the Palestinian issue.As a result, many sectors within Israel’s society found it easier to empathise with the demonstrators, even if they disagreed on these other issues.
  • Finding the softest spot of the state, the IDF: The army is Israel’s last holy cow, and a symbol of unity. Previously, refusing to attend Israel’s mandatory army service for political reasons was a marginal phenomenon, heavily rejected by almost all Israeli society.Yet in recent weeks, Israeli reserve soldiers from all units, including the most elite forces, joined the protests by stating they would refuse to attend their periodic reserve-duty army service. Their argument was that the IDF is the people’s army, and the moves towards what they perceive as a dictatorship “break the contract” with the state, releasing them from their civil obligation to serve in the army.

The army’s operational abilities in many units, especially the strategically vital air force, is very much dependent on an estimated 400,000 reservists, who together constitute 70% of Israel’s fighting forces.

These men and women regularly leave their families for short and long periods to participate in army drills and training, as well as often life-threatening operations.

Defence minister Gallant was shocked to learn that up to 30% of reservists had failed to heed call-ups to attend army service in recent weeks.

Even more alarming was the fact millions of Israelis apparently now consider refusing reserve service as a legitimate form of political protest, opening up a potentially slippery slope towards a type of reservists-based military coup.

Gallant also heard stark warnings from the security agencies that Israel’s enemies – Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist organisations – see recent events as proof of prophecies that they have long believed that Israel will crumble from within, and may use this perceived weakness to strike.

Moving too fast

The government’s original sin was hubris. Intoxicated by its narrow election victory in November last year, Netanyahu’s coalition of extreme right-wing factions and ultra-orthodox religious parties felt empowered and unstoppable.

This was especially true in the wake of several years of political deadlock that included five election campaigns, and two coalition governments that lasted a year or less.

Armed with the notion they had won a mandate to govern, the ministers set out to make rapid and dramatic changes.

Minister of Justice Yariv Levin swiftly announced his judicial reform program, aimed at both changing the make-up of the Supreme Court to include more conservative judges, and drastically limiting the power of the judiciary to strike down government decisions and laws.

Yet despite its Knesset majority, Netanyahu’s government learnt very quickly about the limits of its own power.

Mass protests erupted across Israel. In Europe, Netanyahu heard foreign leaders urging him to find a compromise over the judicial overhaul lest Israel lose its essence as a liberal democracy.

The PM has yet to be invited to the White House, and had to endure instead a call from US President Biden reprimanding him over the efforts to push through the judicial reforms without seeking any sort of political consensus.

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich was unsuccessful in trying to dismiss or counter warnings by international and local economic experts about the dangers of the overhaul to Israel’s economy.

And then Netanyahu fired Gallant.

Social cohesion – crucial for national security

The overall lesson of this episode appears to be that Israel’s democratic culture and traditions prevailed.

In any country neighbouring Israel, any similar mass opposition to the actions of the state would have been crushed and violently silenced.

Democracy is clearly a key value that a large majority of Israelis are willing to fight for. In the battle over the longstanding question regarding the essence of the state – where the balance lies in making the nation both Jewish and democratic – the debate has, at least for now, been won by the pro-liberal camp.

In coming days, a middle way must be found to rebuild Israeli social cohesion, likely involving reforms that can claim some measure of national consensus. Almost everyone now understands this is crucial for Israel’s success, safety and security.

Dr. Ran Porat is an Affiliate Research Associate, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation, Monash University and a research associate with the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC).

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