Early this year, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s advisors were sure that opposition to his controversial plans to reform the judicial system — key to his drive to transform the country’s institutions — would die down and the demonstrations against his reform would gradually dwindle. They were mistaken. Never in its history has Israel seen so many popular protests, so well attended, with demonstrators so politically engaged and unwavering.
Every Saturday evening, hundreds of thousands take to the streets carrying the Israeli flag and hand-made placards. They chant ‘Demokratia’ and ‘You’re messing with the wrong generation’ and ‘If there won’t be equality, we’ll bring down the government.’ All see the reform, which seeks to increase the government’s powers and weaken those of the Supreme Court justices, as undermining the foundations of Israeli democracy.
This political awakening of part of the population is being driven by Israel’s secular elite. They failed to take a stand back in July 2018, when Netanyahu got the Knesset to vote in legislation that defines Israel as the ‘national home of the Jewish people’ (1). The Supreme Court at the time backed this law, which discriminates against non-Jewish citizens. The reaction came only in late December 2022, when Netanyahu formed a new government that included radical religious Zionists and ideological heirs of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League (2).
High-tech company bosses like billionaire Orni Petruschka, well-known lawyers such as Gilead Sher, former Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) generals including former chief of staff Dan Halutz and former military intelligence chief Amos Malka, and leading economists came together to take on Netanyahu’s nationalist, ultra-orthodox and messianic coalition, which has 64 out of the 120 Knesset seats. They formed a nonprofit known as Hofshi Bartzenu (Free in Our Country) to coordinate the activities of all organisations opposed to the government’s policies. The idea was to create a broad pro-democracy movement not linked to political parties.
One platform for recipients
According to Gilead Sher, Hofshi Bartzenu has a budget of several million shekels (3), mostly raised from private donors, none of whom have contributed more than 5% of the total, and 40,000 contributors to a crowdfunding campaign. It offers to cover some or all of NGOs’ admin costs and provide legal and media support.
In return, each recipient is required to sign up to a common platform based on non-violence and the key principles of Israel’s 1948 declaration of independence: ‘freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’, ‘complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’ and ‘freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture’.
To date, 130 local and 140 national organisations have joined the movement. Each retains its own distinct character, but has adopted the common message that opposing Netanyahu’s coalition is an act of patriotism. Demonstrators are encouraged to carry the Israeli flag and sing the Hatikvah (national anthem) at the end of every gathering.
The West Bank is facing chaos and violence. Settlers are also attacking the soldiers and border guards who are there to protect them
The new organisation Brothers and Sisters in Arms is particularly active. It brings together thousands of IDF reservists who have sworn ‘an oath to defend our homeland, with our lives if necessary — not to serve another authoritarian dictatorship in the Middle East’ (4).
On 21 January, 110,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and Kaplan Street (equivalent to 820,000 in Paris). There were similar gatherings in 150 towns and cities across Israel, notably Jerusalem, Haifa and Beer Sheva.The movement grew week by week, and reached 300,000 protesters nationwide on 25 February, after the judicial reform bill cleared its first reading in the Knesset. The protests have continued ever since.
‘We want to start something new’
How do the demonstrators see the conflict with the Palestinians at a time when there are growing calls from members of the governing coalition for the annexation of the West Bank? The organising committee of the main demonstration on Kaplan Street every Saturday carefully avoids the subject. One of its leaders, Roy Neuman, explains: ‘From the outset, we decided not to raise this political issue. When rightwing speakers want to raise it, we say no. We want to start something new — a struggle for democracy and against dictatorship — but if something serious happens, we talk about it.’
The aim is to attract elements of the moderate right who are unhappy with government policy. This is a mistake, according to Avner Gvaryahu, co-president of Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation NGO which collects the testimonies of IDF soldiers who have served in the Palestinian territories: ‘Closing the door to the left and opening it to the right is not a clever strategy. They don’t understand that the pro-annexation camp don’t need the centrists any more. And in any case, the moderate right still want to control the Palestinians.’
Every Saturday evening, several thousand activists from around 30 leftwing organisations opposed to the occupation gather at a crossroads on Kaplan Street. Some carry Palestinian flags. Though they have no contact with the organisers of the main protest, they have noticed over time a change of attitude in much of the public. Guy Hirschfeld, who heads the organisation Looking the Occupation in the Eye, told me, ‘We often sense real empathy. People come and buy T-shirts with our slogans and wear them to demonstrations. We’ve sold 12,000.’
In Jerusalem, things are different. Set up this January, Bayit Meshutaf (Shared Home), the organising committee of the demonstrations outside the president’s residence, decided to appeal to a broad public from the outset. It brings together a dozen leftwing organisations including Free Jerusalem, which campaigns against the occupation.
Guy Schwartz, one of its leaders, described its pluralistic approach: ‘We invite speakers from different backgrounds. We might have a settler who disagrees with the judicial reform, or the head of a major religious secondary school in Jerusalem, or a leading Arab Israeli figure, or a Palestinian activist.’ A significant number of practising Jews regularly take part in the protests.
Even the army, which settlers criticise as being too soft on the Palestinians, has been affected by the protest movement against Netanyahu. Thousands of reservists have suspended their military service. The movement has had a particular impact on the air force, since nearly 60% of its pilots, other aircrew and operations room officers are volunteers, and more than half of them have joined the movement against the new repressive measures. Some fighter pilots have ceased regular training and will eventually no longer be allowed to fly. And some have already said they would not take part in potential airstrikes on Iranian nuclear installations. At the flight academy, veterans no longer take on the training of new pilots.
The religious nationalists don’t like this open dissent. Communications minister Shlomo Karhi, a member of Likud, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), ‘To those refusing to serve … The people of Israel will manage without you and you can go to hell.’ Over the months, such attacks on reservists and IDF chiefs have intensified. Generals and heads of security agencies who don’t follow the orders of the religious far right have been called ‘a militia under the command of the left’.
In June, settlements and national missions minister Orit Strook even compared them to Russia’s Wagner Group after IDF chief of staff Herzl Halevi, Israeli police commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Shin Bet director Ronen Bar described settler attacks on Palestinians as ‘nationalist terrorism’.
Such accusations have helped many Israelis to see the reality of the occupation more clearly (5). According to Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, ‘they realise that the West Bank is facing chaos and violence. Settlers are also attacking the soldiers and border guards who are there to protect them. The settlements have descended into savagery and it’s a threat to the country. I believe we’re seeing a real change in Israel’s political centre: they’re starting to realise that the occupation is a truly existential problem.’
With its operational capabilities diminishing, the army is facing its worst ever peacetime crisis. On 25 March defence minister Yoav Galant intervened. Without consulting Netanyahu, he called for the judicial reform to be halted: ‘The rift within our society is widening and penetrating the Israel Defense Forces.’ He added, ‘This is a clear and immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state. I shall not be a party to this’ (6).
The next evening, on his return from an official visit to London, Netanyahu fired Galant. Across Israel, huge crowds took to the streets. In Tel Aviv, 100,000 demonstrators blocked the ring road. In Jerusalem, thousands of angry protesters broke through police cordons and got as far as the entrance of the apartment building on Azza Street where the Netanyahu family live. The movement began to look like an uprising. The trade union organisation Histadrut called for a general strike. Ben Gurion airport closed.
Netanyahu had no choice: in a televised speech, he first appeared to threaten the demonstrators, then announced he was suspending the reform process. He said he would negotiate with the parliamentary opposition and attempt to secure an agreement, but then said the reform would happen one way or another. (And on 10 April he reinstated Galant.) So Netanyahu had not given up on his aim. On 23 July, ignoring the half million Israelis demonstrating across the country and blocking streets around the Knesset, he managed to scrap the ‘reasonableness’ clause allowing Israel’s Supreme Court to overrule government decisions. The entire parliamentary opposition boycotted the Knesset vote bringing in this reform.
On 12 September, in a historic session, the 15 justices of the Supreme Court heard opening arguments from both sides. Ilan Bombach, attorney for the government, cast doubt on the validity of Israel’s declaration of independence, as proclaimed by David Ben Gurion on 14 May 1948: ‘Because 37 people were authorised to sign the hasty declaration of independence, which was still being drafted until the last moment, this should obligate people who came later?’ He referred to the principle that guides today’s ruling coalition: ‘By granting us a majority in the Knesset, the Israeli people have given us a mandate to govern alone, without interference from unelected judges.’ The message is clear: the right and its messianic allies see the law defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people as the country’s only founding text.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu persists in his efforts to change how the country is governed. He has given Shlomo Karhi the task of muzzling the media. Karhi’s proposed legislation, based on a law introduced by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, makes TV broadcasters and almost all the print media subject to supervision by a committee that is largely controlled by the government. The government also plans to use facial recognition technology in public spaces, including places where demonstrations are held.
The Supreme Court is due to rule within the next few months, and it will then become apparent whether Israel is heading for a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile, Israel’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for late October 2026. Will events force Netanyahu’s coalition to bring it forward?
https://mondediplo.com/2023/10/03israel Israel’s growing wind of rebellion, by Charles Enderlin (Le Monde diplomatique