A crisis of judicial proportions explained, Part III: Anatomy of the protest movement

The protest organizers are doing irreparable harm to the state, its institutions and its economy in a “cutting off your nose to spite your face” campaign.

Israel Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 2021. Credit: Igal Vaisman/Shutterstock.
Israel Supreme Court in Jerusalem, July 2021. Credit: Igal Vaisman/Shutterstock.
Alex Traiman
Alex Traiman is the CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate).

Since the announcement of a package of proposed judicial reforms by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, a small protest movement quickly gained momentum, headed by opposition leader Yair Lapid, claiming that Israel was on its way toward becoming a fascist dictatorship (read Part I and Part II).

From the outset, political leaders were warning that the protests would lead to political violence and ultimately a civil war. Such warnings were seen as hyperbole and condemned for their malicious tone but did not deter Netanyahu’s coalition from racing ahead with its planned legislation.

Protests numbering in the thousands morphed over a matter of weeks into a large-scale popular resistance. Mass protests of more than 100,000 judicial reform opponents began lining streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, closing major traffic arteries.

High-tech businessmen heeded calls from protest organizers and began removing funds from the country. Diaspora Jews wrote letters and sent delegations to Israel calling for the reform bills to be halted. Foreign leaders expressed their concerns that the reform package could harm Israeli democracy and its successful economy.

A small but vocal group of left-wing IDF reservists and fighter pilots threatened not to report for duty if the reforms were passed.

In multiple public addresses, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog warned that Israel was careening toward a civil war, and that the country—about to turn 75—might not make it to its 80th birthday, just as previous Jewish commonwealths in Israel had failed to do. Herzog urged both the coalition to halt the reforms package, and to negotiate a consensus reform package agreed upon with the opposition.

Herzog’s words were quoted two days later by none other than Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who exulted that Israel’s own president had said Israel might no longer exist within five years’ time.

As protesters held up signs in English claiming Israel was no longer a democracy, anti-Israel media reports quoted protesters to advance the claim that Israel is guilty of human rights violations against Palestinians.

In fact, in the early days of the protests, Palestinian flags were waved by left-wing Jewish activists at the protests—that is, until protest organizers realized that the nation’s center would never join protests that included Palestinian flags.

Most citizen protesters are peaceful

It is important to note at the outset that most opponents of judicial reform, and even most of the citizen protesters, are peaceful. The last thing they want to see is violence against any of their fellow citizens. Many attendees have noted that for the most part, the protest atmosphere has thus far been a largely constructive gathering of individuals concerned for the future of Israeli democracy.

It should also be noted that many if not most of the opponents of judicial reforms do not oppose the overwhelming majority of the bills’ substance. In fact, many simply do not understand or appreciate the imbalance that exists between the country’s government and the judiciary, or how the system in Israel differs from other countries, including the United States. Many also acknowledge that the court is in need of some level of rebalancing.

Most Israelis support some reforms

While recent polls indicate that a majority of Israelis object to the judicial reforms package as a whole, most do not know its details. When polls are conducted explaining each individual reform, and polling each on an individual basis, most Israelis support the reform in question.

Most protesters are opposing the reforms based on their poor opinions of the characters implementing them, as well as the speed with which the bills were racing through the legislature. Simply put, opponents see the reforms as a power grab.

The voters got it wrong

Most of the reforms’ opponents are upset that Netanyahu remains at the helm. They suggest that absolute power corrupts absolutely; that Netanyahu has sat in the prime minister’s chair for more than his fair share of time; that there should be term limits; and that a prime minister should not serve while under trial—although the law explicitly permits it.

Most opponents, some subconsciously and others openly, think voters got it wrong. They cannot believe that after years of campaigning and conspiring to get Netanyahu out of office, and briefly succeeding in doing so, he is back in power. Worse yet, for the first time, Netanyahu is now governing exclusively with right-wing and religious parties. There are no left-wing elements in the coalition to temper his policies.

To the protesters, the idea that democratic elections have consequences does not hold weight. To Israelis who were raised with socialist ideals and have not experienced purer forms of democracy such as those in the United States or the United Kingdom, the election results were worth opposing.

No-holds-barred opposition

From the moment the election results were in, Lapid, who had hoped to turn his brief, transitional premiership into a permanent one, vowed that the opposition would be fierce, and that Netanyahu had seen nothing yet. He was right.

It is quite likely that any policies the government advanced would have been met with staunch opposition—and Netanyahu handed the opposition a gift. The issue of judicial reform was focus tested and resonated powerfully not only with government opponents, but also those in the skeptical middle. The left had found an issue that would propel the anti-Netanyahu protests of the country’s successive election campaigns into something much larger.

Most expensive campaign in Israel’s history

The protest movement is hands-down the most expensive political campaign in Israeli history. Tens of millions of shekels are being spent every week on signage, billboards, costumes, stages and busing protesters.

Billboards and signs feature the infamous “black fist” present in nearly all the well-funded “color revolutions” taking place around the world over the past two decades.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, one of the primary protest agitators, explained his protest strategy in an hour-long sitdown at the Chatham House. He described the government as “illegitimate,” although he does not dispute the election results. He openly explains that an ongoing protest by at least eight percent of a country’s adult population historically always leads a government to capitulate or resign—which is the true goal of the protests.

Barak, along with former foreign minister and Netanyahu challenger Tzippi Livni, appeared in interviews on CNN, violating an unofficial rule whereby current and former top officials will not oppose the policies of a sitting government in foreign media.

Movement for Quality Government

One of the organizations at the front of the protests has been the Movement for Quality Government (MQG). The “Movement” has protested against government corruption since the premiership of Yitzhak Rabin. The organization has campaigned heavily against Netanyahu’s continued ability to serve as prime minister, despite the law explicitly permitting him to do so, and more importantly, the voters continuing to give his party more mandates than any other.

But the MQG is not only a protest organizer. They are also the leading petitioner to Israel’s Supreme Court, which is often ready to accept its calls. In addition, it has been reported, and admitted by MQG, that the organization has received funds from the U.S. State Department for educational activities.

Calling Israel undemocratic

Much of the signage at the protests has been in English, for the purpose of gaining foreign media attention. Much of that signage, and many of the protest slogans, have been calling Israel “undemocratic.” Israel has been fighting wars for its very legitimacy in international forums, as well as in mainstream and social media in the greater battle of public opinion.

Most readers of headlines about Israel very likely do not understand the reforms or even know their details. Many probably do not know the difference between Itamar Ben-Gvir and Yair Lapid. And most now digesting headlines about Israel being undemocratic are unlikely to change their newfound or reinforced views if Netanyahu suddenly abandons judicial reform, or for that matter if a left-wing government comes to power.

Lobbying Diaspora Jewish leaders

In the last several years, Jewish leaders outside of Israel have grown increasingly progressive, and increasingly critical of Israeli policies. The “change government” led by Lapid and Bennett sought to blame these shifts squarely on Netanyahu. With the introduction of judicial reform, the opposition began lobbying Diaspora Jewish leaders to openly oppose the government.

Jewish leaders have sent letters as well as in-person delegations urging the government to halt the reforms, using the opposition’s talking points that an unrestrained government will curb religious freedoms and remove civil rights for minorities, even though such arguments remain well in the realm of the hypothetical.

Calling for divestment

One of the protest’s primary arguments has been that reforming the judiciary will create an environment of mistrust among businesses and investors. In reality, the opposite is true. An overactive Supreme Court has canceled commercial contracts without solid legal basis, and creates an environment whereby companies can never be sure if the contracts they signed will be upheld, if the court can come in and strike down key terms.

Bank of Israel Governor Amir Yaron has warned that judicial reform would harm the economy. Credit ratings agencies like Moody’s announced that they could consider lowering Israel’s exceptional credit rating, despite consistent economic growth, a healthy debt to GDP ratio and government budget surplus.

Left-wing hi-tech business leaders have announced that they would take money out of the country. Some reportedly moved large sums out of Israel and into Silicon Valley Bank, just days before the bank crashed.

While for years, Israel has been fighting enemies who have been promoting BDS on the basis of the ongoing conflict with Palestinians, now Israel’s own left wing has joined the calls. Yet is far from certain that businesses that heed those calls will reinvest, regardless of who runs the country or what policies they advance.

Protesting an Israeli prime minister abroad

For the first time, Prime Minister Netanyahu and members of his cabinet have faced protests when traveling abroad. While these protesters are opposing judicial reform, they are setting a dangerous precedent, by sending the message that it is appropriate to protest against an Israeli leader when they come to town.

Shuttering Ben Gurion Airport

In organizing a general strike, banks, hospitals, stores and even Ben Gurion airport were all closed by Israel’s Histadrut Labor Union, though judicial reform has no direct impact on banks, hospitals, stores or planes. No one could leave the country, even though there was no labor dispute. Many have suggested the strike was illegal, but if so, who will enforce the law? The attorney general? The Supreme Court?

The sanctity of the IDF

Back in 2005, the government led by Ariel Sharon did a complete about-face on its campaign promises and organized the expulsion of 8,500 Jews from 21 separate Jewish communities in the Gush Katif bloc of the Gaza Strip. Further, Sharon violated the legal processes he established calling for votes prior to each stage of the disengagement.

Israel’s right-wing was horrified, and organized (largely ineffective) mass protests.

For the first time in the country’s history, the Israel Defense Forces was tasked with carrying out a mission that was not defense oriented, and was targeted against tax-paying Israeli citizens who posed no violent threat.

Officers and soldiers reported for duty to perform the cruel task of removing Jews from their homes, even though many disagreed with the orders they were given—and considered them both illegal and immoral. Why did they do that? Because they considered Israel’s ability to defend itself against mortal enemies to be sacrosanct, and that ability depended on soldiers’ willingness to accept even the most difficult orders.

It should be noted that most reservists, pilots and servicemen have not joined in calls to refuse military service in protest against the reforms. Yet, a small but vocal group of left-wing pilots and reservists have stated that they would refuse to show up for training and even potentially missions if judicial reform is advanced.

“Cutting off their nose to spite their face”

In each of these cases, breaking the barriers of unwritten rules removes the cat from the bag. Diaspora leaders will now always feel they can openly oppose government policy. Investors who remove their funds are unlikely to reinvest them. And labor unions and the military have now been politicized, giving members license to refuse to work or serve anytime they oppose policies—even if those policies are unrelated to the work or service involved.

The protest organizers are doing irreparable harm to the state, its institutions and its economy, in a classic “cutting off your nose to spite your face” campaign. The effects will likely not be corrected even if Netanyahu is replaced in office by Lapid, National Union Party leader Benny Gantz or any other liberal politician. And should any right-wing leader be in power, they can be sure these tools will be weaponized against them anytime they advance policies that are out of line with ever-shifting progressive sensibilities.

Judicial reforms at all costs?

After an election giving Netanyahu his dream right-wing coalition and potentially years more in office, many Israelis now view the court as the only check on Netanyahu’s power. Therefore, they believe the court must be protected, no holds barred.

The coalition had desperately wanted to reform the court, full stop. With 64 right-wing mandates in the parliament, the coalition has—or at least until last week had—the votes it needed to pass the reforms. The coalition had expected screaming opposition members, and even some protests along the likes of the anti-Netanyahu protests that persisted throughout the previous election cycles.

They grossly underestimated the power of the opposition and its ability to galvanize the political center on the reform issue. What the coalition did not foresee was that the institutions beyond the court and the opposition would begin to shut down the country, that red lines would be crossed and that the organizers behind the protests would readily advocate for Israel’s social contracts to be violated and discarded.

Netanyahu has paused judicial reforms for the time being, and the temperature has cooled, at least temporarily. Negotiations on a consensus reform agreement are now being negotiated at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. Perhaps those negotiations will take place in earnest. Yet it is at least equally if not more likely that we have not seen the last of the protest movement, particularly if and when the opposition decides that the negotiations have broken down. Chances are we will not see the end of protests until Netanyahu is replaced with someone the left finds more palatable.

It is no wonder Israel’s right distrusts so many of Israel’s left-wing-controlled institutions. Soon they may no longer have trust in the outcome of elections—and that may just be the opposition’s true goal.

Alex Traiman is CEO and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of JNS.

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