by Thibault LauroaMarch 29, 2023
With Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu's controversial judicial reform on hold since Monday, the country's population finds itself not at ease but only at a new crossroads in their struggle to protect their country's democracy.
A multi-sector strike, more than 12 weeks of intensifying protests, and dissent and defections among Israeli officials on numerous fronts... since the beginning of this year, Israel has been experiencing its largest demonstrations in a decade. In the 75 years of its existence, the democratic model of the Israeli state has never faced such an imminent threat. The potential rise of the supremacist, religious and ultra-Orthodox coalition following the legislative elections this November jeopardizes the foundations of the rule of law.
Knowing that the reform delay will only buy time for Netanyahu, the Israeli people remain determined to defend their government, human rights, the ability of the Supreme Court to correct decisions, and the ability of the judicial system to consider minorities. According to the demonstrators, the survival of democracy in their country is at stake and it is not the time to give in.
Meanwhile, it is very difficult to imagine points of conversion between Palestinians and Israeli demonstrators in this struggle, the former being victims of extreme Israeli violence for the past several decades while the Israeli Supreme Court turns a blind eye.
This article examines the intensification of protests against the government over the past 12 weeks, as well as the federation of society around this movement.
Since the beginning of the year, tens of thousands of demonstrators (at least 300,000 on Saturday, March 11 at 95 rallying points) marched in front of the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem and in 20 cities. Their grievances: "a crazy and dangerous government" and a draft reform of the judicial system likely to increase the grip of political power on justice. In Tel Aviv, the weekly Saturday demonstrations have taken on a festive spirit: the procession, filled with Israeli flags and vuvuzelas (large plastic horns), reverberates the repeated calls for "De-mo-kra-tia!”
Before Israel, Turkey and Hungary had shown the sad path that democracies can take when they renounce the foundations of the rule of law: the separation of powers, respect for institutions and minorities, and so on. Like these countries, the Israeli government could close down newspapers, ban opposition parties and/or modify electoral rules by overstepping the control of the Court, guardian of fundamental laws. Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reform is also seen as an attempt to overturn his possible conviction for corruption; the latter would satisfy the most radical parties by allowing the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestine.
In addition to citizens and even prominent cultural actors, some representatives of institutions are criticizing the government, such as the president of the Supreme Court, for whom the program would overwrite the judicial system. The army has also spoken out against some institutional changes.
Movement participants draw from members of civil society, accompanied by employers, economic decision-makers (ex. Moshe Hazan, senior official of the Bank of Israel who resigned), NGOs (ex. Movement for Quality Government in Israel) and justice professionals who are up in arms against this "judicial coup d'état" and the neutralization of the Supreme Court.
In the first 11 weeks of the demonstrations, several hundred high-tech employees demonstrated in Tel Aviv; "Without democracy, no high tech", one could read on the signs. Indeed, the country could not afford emigration of its most successful executives. In addition, former Central Bank governors, ex-ministers and economists have signed an open letter warning against the reform.
Dissent is even manifesting within the government and the military, fissures that the movement could capitalize on to induce defections. Former generals (Moshe Yaalon) and the ex-Prime Minister (Ehoud Barak) have openly accused the government of "fascism" and have called for civil disobedience. The former head of Netanyahu's government, now leader of the opposition (Yaïr Lapid), has been calling for unity and perseverance to defend democracy "in the streets, in the Knesset, in the courts". Similarly, two former defense ministers warned the new government in the Israeli daily Ha'Aretz against "a coup d'état that would jeopardize the economy, civil rights and security in the country".
Last week, an elite air force squadron threatened to skip a day's exercise; the action did not take place, but the warning was scathing.
Finally, as the reform is scheduled for the beginning of April, Israeli president I. Herzog took the floor to put pressure on the Prime Minister by claiming that "no party should win but that a compromise should be found to get out of this deep unease". For this to happen, S. Galanti, a specialist in non-Western democracies, believes that the movement must at least manage to find a compromise through dialogue, because a government that respects democracy would have to respond to what the president is asking for.
Further, when we discuss questions of democracy in Israel, we cannot overlook the question of where Palestinians stand. There is little reason that they would want to protect the Supreme Court. For Palestinians, this Court has given weight to the Israeli settlers and allowed the military to act as they please in the Occupied Territories. It has done little to defend Palestinian rights and prevent the establishment of an apartheid regime.
Yet, it would be logical for this people, whose rights are scorned, to find points of convergence with Israelis mobilized to defend democracy and the separation of powers. Glimmers of hope appear as the movement wages on, and the police, for example, were recently confronted with the slogan "Where were you in Huwara?”
This Palestinian town, devastated by settlers as the Israeli army turned a blind eye, has become a symbol of resistance for the demonstrators—a common cry of rage. "We can definitely talk about a Huwara effect", emphasizes Eli Avidor (former Israeli politician who founded the Israel Free political party in 2022) as he walked with Fighters for Peace, a group of ex-Israeli soldiers and Palestinian activists. Alon-Lee Green, co-founder of the movement Stand Up Together, hopes that this can lead to a confluence of struggles by demonstrating for life, security, against a military occupation, the judicial reform and the annexation of the West Bank. Will Israeli demonstrators be proactive in building allies within the Palestinian community towards their common goals?
The movement is still in its early stages, and the stakes are higher each day that it continues. Will the people succeed at disrupting the most extreme government in the history of the Hebrew state? And equally important, what path forward will they propose if/when the government will fall?
Thibault Lauroa is a student in public law and political science at the Catholic University of Paris, France, and rising Masters student in Public Affairs (national and international). Previously, he worked as parliamentary assistant at the French National Assembly and volunteers with Secours Catholique-Caritas France.Read More