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Barak urges civil revolt as anti-reform protests lose steam

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak claims that Benjamin Netanyahu is intent on destroying Israeli democracy.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government's planned judicial reforms, Feb. 25, 2023. Photo by Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, a leading voice against the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform program, urged demonstrators to revolt in a speech in Haifa on Saturday.

Barak told protesters to engage in “civil disobedience, or in more precise language, nonviolent civil disobedience.”

(During a Sept. 6 interview with Channel 12, Barak detailed what he meant, referring to blocking roads—an act already engaged in by protesters—strikes, refusal to pay taxes and boycotts.)

“The script for civil disobedience was written by Mahatma Gandhi, who drove the British Empire from India, by Martin Luther King, who led the struggle for civil rights for blacks, by the young people of the United States, who pulled it out of Vietnam, and by those who removed [Slobodan] Milošević from his dictator’s chair in Serbia,” Barak told the protesters.

“I am calling upon the citizens of Israel to prepare for the call to act, and when the call comes, to answer it,” he said.

It was necessary to ratchet up the protests because while “the coup d’état was stopped at the 90th minute,” the judicial reformists hadn’t yet “thrown up their hands,” Barak said.

“[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu understands that his legislative blitz failed,” so he has adopted a piecemeal, or “salami” process, said Barak.

“The same goal, only a different method,” he said. “To make small legislative changes to regulations, each of which seems marginal but in their aggregate weakens democratic institutions and prepares the ground for the final coup de grâce.”

Barak claimed that Netanyahu was only manipulating the negotiations taking place at the President’s Residence to weaken the opposition. He blamed President Isaac Herzog and opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz for unwittingly helping Netanyahu by buying him time.

Talks under the president’s auspices have taken place on and off since March, when Netanyahu agreed to freeze judicial reform legislation to negotiate as broad a consensus as possible as all sides agree some judicial reform is needed.

Barak rejected this approach.

“Victory, however painful, is preferable to a rotten compromise,” he said. “The purpose of the protest must be clear. There are no compromises with someone who tried to destroy democracy, failed this time, and works again to destroy it in a slightly different way.”

Barak’s call comes as anti-reform movement organizers admit that demonstrations are losing momentum, as revealed by Channel 14. The television outlet obtained texts from a “closed and secret” WhatsApp group of leading protest organizers, 16 in all, which included Barak, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz.

Group participants shared ideas about how to revive the waning movement, the report said.

“Everything that I warned against has come about. We have become very weak. Only an expanded hard core remains,” wrote Ishay Hadas, founder of the anti-Netanyahu “Crime Minister” protest group.

“If you want to try to use and create a significant trigger that will bring us back and return us to the picture, now is the moment,” he said.

“We made mistakes. We surrendered to the narrative of Netanyahu, the president and the opposition. It’s time to try to make amends. We must create a public drama,” Hadas added. “Enough of talk! Action!”

Head-to-head and hand-to-hand

Olmert said, “At the beginning of the protest, I said that this struggle is not about academic seminars and speeches. We have to fight head-to-head, hand-to-hand. Then there were reservations about the formula because it sounded too aggressive. I think that the validity of the thing hasn’t expired, perhaps the opposite. Without violence and breaking the law, but in war as in war.”

Barak said that they mustn’t delay moving to the next stage.

Halutz warned that it would be a “fiasco” without a strong showing from protesters. “Friends, if we don’t enlist thousands of participants to create the desired effect, it’s better not to do it.”

One comment from Hadas may have inadvertently revealed that the numbers coming to weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv and elsewhere are exaggerated, Channel 14 reported.

The protests, which notched their 23rd week on Saturday, are typically numbered in the hundred thousand range, but Hadas said, “We need 35,000 people,” referring to the number required to succeed in a civil disobedience-style protest.

The plan that coalesced in the WhatsApp group was to block Ben-Gurion Airport.

Protesters have attempted to block the airport before. On March 9, in one of its “Days of Disruption,” protesters attempted to prevent Netanyahu from taking an official trip to Italy. While it forced him to take a helicopter to the airport that he might not otherwise have and resulted in the relocation of a meeting with visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the protesters didn’t succeed in stopping any flights.

While Barak called for nonviolent acts, protesters may have already crossed that red line in earlier demonstrations, having clashed with police on more than one occasion.

They have also engaged in harassment campaigns against coalition politicians, including trailing them on trips outside the country, and in one instance, trapped Netanyahu’s wife, Sarah, in a hair salon, from which she had to be extricated by police.

Most recently, Energy Minister Israel Katz accused anti-judicial reform activists of spitting on him during an event in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening. “I will not be deterred by violence masquerading as democracy,” Katz tweeted.

The protesters interrupted him during his talk and followed him to his car.

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