The fallout from the Israel protests will be felt for years to come

Kim Sengupta

The Independent  /  March 27, 2023

The ‘reforms’ proposed by the hard-right coalition strike at the independence of the judiciary – and take away legal checks and balances on political actions.

The protests in Israel over the proposed overhaul of the judicial system by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government are the largest and most fundamentally important in the country’s history, with repercussions that are going to continue for a long time.

The “reforms” proposed by the hard-right coalition strike at the independence of the judiciary – and take away legal checks and balances on political actions. It seems to me they will also personally help Netanyahu, shielding him while he faces trial for alleged corruption.

The sheer scale and breadth of the opposition to the measures, a widely supported general strike as well as demonstrations, have paralyzed the country, with reverberations both national and international.

Airports and seaports have ceased to operate, the main roads are blocked, banks, offices and shops are shut, hospitals are only providing emergency care. The diplomats’ union has called on members to take action – the embassy in London went on strike this morning while I was there talking to officials. Even McDonald’s has closed all branches.

But the most significant development for the Jewish state, which has been involved in regular wars since its birth, has been the mood in the security forces.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant was sacked by Netanyahu after he called for the law changes to be halted, warning that he had never seen such intensity of anger and disquiet in the Israeli Defence Forces.

Growing numbers of reservists – the core of the military – are refusing to report for duty, causing operational problems, senior officers have warned. Among those addressing rallies has been Benny Gantz, leader of the National Unity Party, a former head of Israeli military, saying: “We are one people; whoever doesn’t protect his country won’t have a country, and you are protecting our country.”

Netanyahu and Itmar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister, criticized the police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, for supposedly being too soft on the protestors.

Shabtai has refused to back down, stressing: “I promise that the Israel Police will remain apolitical. We will be careful about equal enforcement, about freedom of protest and freedom of expression regardless of religion, race or gender and affiliation of one kind or another … And, to put it politely, no one will frighten us.”

The police commissioner has also stated that it was his force’s duty to protect the right to protest. The first test of that may come on Monday evening when hard-right supporters of the legal overhaul, including groups of football fans, will take to the streets in counter-demonstrations amid social media messages calling for attacks on liberals and “traitors”.

The demonstrations have taken place under a sea of Israeli flags and very few Palestinian ones. One reason behind this, it has been claimed, was to ensure that the government does not have the pretext for saying that Israel’s “enemies” will benefit from the legal overhaul being halted.

“We want the messages delivered from our protest to be only about the democratic character of Israel,” Nadav Lazare, a spokesperson for one of the organizers, Movement for Quality Government, told the publication Jewish Currents.

Many Palestinians, however, stated that they had been too disenfranchised for the legislation to have any meaning.

“The protests don’t mention anything that has to do with the Palestinian issue,” said Sami Abu Shehadeh, a former Knesset member and the leader of the Palestinian nationalist party Balad. “The issues that are brought up have nothing to do with the main problem in the region – justice and equality for all the people living here.”

Netanyahu is expected to announce “a pause” on implementing his judicial overhaul. But “a pause” is just that and does not address the concern of the protestors on what ultimately happens.

In any event, such a move by the prime minister will cause immediate problems for his coalition government. Among the leading proponents of the “reforms”, the justice minister, Yariv Levin, has said he will accept whatever Netanyahu proposes for the time being.

But Itamar Ben-Gvir has warned that he may resign and Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset’s law and justice committee, called on counter-protests with Trumpian cries of “they will not steal our elections!” and “don’t give up the peoples’ choice”.

The fall of the coalition government will lead to the sixth election in four years. Netanyahu got back into power leading the most right-wing government ever in Israel, a mixture of ultra-orthodox and extreme hardliners, last November, but he may not win the next time.

This takes us back to Netanyahu’s personal legal difficulties. “This is obviously about his political survival, he will be damned whether he does stop the reform, but he will also be damned if he does not,” said Professor Yuval Shany, of the Israel Democracy Institute.

Avi Aaronstein, a political analyst, commented: “This was a marriage of convenience between the right wing, which sees the independent judiciary as an obstacle to their plans, and Bibi, who saw it as a personal threat. Neither will want to give up the proposed changes easily.”

Kim Sengupta is World Affairs Editor for The Independent