More religious or more democratic? Israel protests become fight for country's 'essential character'
On Monday, PM Netanyahu announced pause on reforms amid intensifying protests
The streets of Israel have boiled with anger and frustration for three months. And they continue to seethe even after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused — just a little — in his quest to rein in the country's judges.
He will allow a few weeks for protests to calm and a "broad consensus" to emerge, he said on Monday, before continuing with his controversial plan to reform the judicial system.
It's a package of laws that will curtail the power of Supreme Court judges over the elected government, among other moves designed to give Israel's Knesset — its parliament — the final word on legal matters.
Netanyahu's ministers have accused the court of being "too liberal," with a tendency to overreach in rejecting laws Netanyahu's current right-wing coalition favours, such as imposing Jewish religious restrictions on secular Israelis or making it easier to expand Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Opponents call the proposed legislation "undemocratic," and say it will end judicial independence and the only check on a government's power.
They flexed their muscle over a weekend of marches across Israel, including one that culminated with protesters breaking through security barriers around Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem.
"When there's an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue," Netanyahu declared on national TV on Monday, "I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue."
His attempt at conciliation was countered immediately by an insistence that "the reform will pass," as tweeted by his far-right coalition partner, the leader of the Jewish National Front, Itamar Ben-Gvir.
"No one will scare us," he added. Ben-Gvir only agreed to the pause after demanding — and getting — a promise from Netanyahu that a new national guard would be created and placed under his control as minister of national security.
'This isn't just a group of dissidents and malcontents'
The passion and persistence of the protests — as well as a growing polarization over the government's moves — have unnerved many in Israel, including President Isaac Herzog. He's warned of an "abyss" that is "tearing us apart" and suggested some compromises.
But they have been rejected by Netanyahu.
Over the weekend, Netanyahu's own defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said the unrest posed "a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state" and urged scrapping the reforms, after soldiers in Israel's reserves threatened to boycott duty if the reforms go ahead.
Netanyahu fired Gallant, fuelling more protests and "sending shockwaves across the political spectrum," said Renan Levine, a professor at the University of Toronto who studies Israeli voter behaviour.
"It's become very clear that this isn't just a group of dissidents and malcontents protesting, but really some crucial pieces of the country's backbone," he said.
Hundreds of thousands have filled the streets week after week, with placards accusing Netanyahu of engineering "the end of democracy" for his own political advantage: to promote issues important to his ultra-nationalist and religious coalition partners and to potentially give him more sway over a justice system that is considering multiple corruption charges against Netanyahu himself.
A 'secular uprising'
The protests have revitalized the political opposition — namely, left and centre-left parties whose electoral fortunes have been fading, but whose surging popular support now collectively gives them an edge over Netanyahu's coalition, based on two polls released Monday.
The marches have also formed unlikely alliances. Bankers have joined activists and young people in blocking Israel's main thoroughfares.
"They are ruining our democratic systems forever," said 27-year-old Eitan Kahana, after Netanyahu's speech. "I will not let this pass, ever. I will do everything in my power to protest it."
Unions have disrupted hospital services and flights at Israel's main airport. Meanwhile, pensioners stand next to high-tech workers like Yoav Fisher, who wants to "protect all that Israel has gained, from being a global engine of high tech and a centre of progress and enlightenment in a hostile region."
This large coalition represents a "secular uprising" by the majority of Israelis who are not ultra-religious, argues Haaretz news columnist and Netanyahu biographer Ansel Pfeffer.
"It is about a secular middle class recognizing that this may be its last chance to preserve what it has always seen as Israel's essential character," he wrote, by protecting a democratic system where the ultra-Orthodox community doesn't impose its rules on the whole country.
In doing so, the "very, very intense and emotional protests" have reached deep into Israeli society, said Barak Sella, director of the Reut Institute, a think-tank in Tel Aviv. And they're upsetting the "delicate balance of being Jewish and being democratic," he said. In effect, dividing people.
Many back Jewish nationalist government
Many of those who prioritize the distinctly Jewish character of Israel tend to support the reforms, Sella said. This week, for the first time, a large group of these counter-protesters also gathered outside Israel's parliament, as police struggled to keep the opposing groups apart.
Some of the government's strongest backers are settlers, pushing for parts of the proposed judicial reform package that they believe could make it easier for Israel to expand settlements in the occupied West Bank, to take land they believe historically belongs to Jews from Palestinians.
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Others are supporters of rights for ultra-religious Jews. Among other things, they seek assurances that men attending religious schools called yeshivas will be exempt from mandatory military service, something the top court has denied them, but which the new legislation guarantees.
"By the grace of God, the people of Israel chose a Jewish and nationalistic government that is expected to operate in support of Torah," twenty prominent rabbis declared in a statement.
Both sides vow to keep up the pressure, deepening rifts and intensifying instability in a country that takes pride in being the Middle East's only democracy.