Israel protests: Four things you need to know

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  March 10, 2023

Middle East Eye breaks down what’s driving the unprecedented demonstrations and what’s at stake.

Israel has been engulfed in political turmoil for over two months, as tens of thousands of people continue to take to the streets in mass protests.

Demonstrators want the government to scrap a controversial judicial overhaul plan they say threatens checks and balances in the country.

The demonstrations have been growing, drawing in supporters from various professions, including the military, the justice system and high-tech industry.

The government has so far remained undeterred by the protests, prompting warnings that divisions will only deepen if a compromise is not reached soon. 

Middle East Eye breaks down what triggered the protests, why they are significant and what lies ahead.

What triggered the protests ?

The demonstrations were called for by opposition MPs and government critics after Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveiled a plan in January to reform the judiciary. 

Levin’s proposal includes clauses that will allow parliament to override the Supreme Court by a simple majority of 61 votes out of 120 MPs.

It will also give the coalition lawmakers de facto authority to appoint judges. 

The plan is supported by the right-wing governing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which includes ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties. 

Proponents of Levin’s plan criticize the Supreme Court for being left-leaning, elitist and too involved in politics. 

What do the protesters want ?

Since Levin announced the plan, the government has faced a widespread backlash. 

Critics of his proposal say the plan will weaken the country’s already fragile checks and balances system by curbing the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws passed by the legislature.  

They fear it will slide the country further into authoritarian rule and give politicians unchecked powers. 

Many also accuse Netanyahu of supporting the plan to nullify the ongoing trial against him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. 

The PM denied the charges and the allegation that he wants to intervene in the legal process. 

Tens of thousands of people have organized weekly rallies on Saturdays since the plan was announced, demanding the government scrap it completely.

More recently, they have organized mass strikes and civil disobedience action during workdays, blocking major roads and marching outside the offices and residences of government ministers. 

Who’s protesting ? 

The initial protests were called for by prominent politicians in the opposition, but have since grown to include various civil society activists and groups. 

In one rally, hundreds of lawyers, former judges and other legal professionals protested against the plan, saying it threatens the country’s democratic character. 

Other protests were attended by high-tech and financial sector workers who say the plan will damage the economy, which has already been shaken by the political uncertainty. 

In an unprecedented development, some military reservists have recently joined the protests and refused to train.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, have so far boycotted the protests and in some instances banned them. They argue that the Supreme Court in Israel is already undemocratic and unfair. 

What’s next ?

The first reading of bills advancing the judicial plan was passed last month, with two more readings needing to pass before they become law.

In the meantime, Israeli President Isaac Herzog has been leading efforts to bring the government and the opposition to the negotiating table.

He called the current political turmoil a “national nightmare” and warned it will lead to a “catastrophe” if not resolved soon. 

Netanyahu said he’s willing to reach a compromise on the reform with the opposition, who have repeatedly called for the government to drop its plan before entering any talks.

On the streets, tensions have been steadily growing between police and protesters, who are planning more rallies.

After nearly two months of relative calm during demonstrations, police have started using stun grenades, water cannons and mounted officers to disperse crowds. Dozens of people have been arrested and injured. 

Polls, experts and veteran politicians say the current crisis reveals deep divides in Israeli society. Many have warned current tensions could slide the country into civil war and violence if a solution is not found soon.