These are dramatic days in Israel, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forcibly pushes through his judicial overhaul plan to weaken the Supreme Court and empower the executive branch. This, despite the threat of economic collapse, as well as major military and foreign pressure. On Monday, the first piece of legislation making up the judicial overhaul passed a final vote. Known as the “reasonableness bill”, this legislation abolishes the ability of the High Court of Justice to block government decisions it deems unreasonable or implausible.
On Saturday, 10,000 reserve duty soldiers announced that they would stop showing up for duty if the legislation passed. This comes in addition to warnings by the heads of the Israeli security forces, business leaders, legal experts, and economists. Even US President Joe Biden issued a warning against hastily passing the legislation without consensus. Nevertheless, Netanyahu’s coalition raced ahead, plunging the country into a state of chaos.
As Monday’s vote took place, thousands of people carrying Israeli flags protested outside of the parliament building — seemingly unmoved by the burning summer heat, water cannons and police arrests. The sounds of the demonstration could be heard from far away: banging on blockades, whistle horns, drums and chanting. The bill passed 64-0, with the opposition boycotting the final vote after attempts to reach a compromise failed. Israel now finds itself submerged in the unknown: the Supreme Court may oppose the law but this will push the country into a constitutional crisis, forcing the military and security forces to choose who to obey between the courts and the government.
Protests against Israel’s long-time Prime Minister are not new. They have been ongoing for several years, especially since the Prime Minister’s indictment on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust in November 2019. However, they reached a new level in January of this year following the swearing in of Israel’s most Right-wing and fundamentalist government to date, as well as the announcement of the comprehensive judicial “reform” plan. Since then, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets each week in more than 150 locations across the country.
There is a sense among them that the country they once knew is slipping away before their eyes. On Tuesday, in a last-ditch effort to stop the legislation, tens of thousands of protesters embarked on a five-day march to Jerusalem. The effort, which one protester described as a “secular pilgrimage”, ended outside the Israeli parliament. Protesters set up a “tent city”, preparing to camp out in the run-up to the final vote. Hundreds of silver tents sprinkled the grass divided by different protest groups, ranging from university students to reserve duty soldiers.
As Netanyahu races ahead with the legislation, there is a strong impression all around of the collapse of the country’s social contract. Some of the most sacred “myths” of Israeli society, including the importance of military service, have been slashed.
The night before the Knesset vote, the protest camp held a screening of the Israeli cult film Halfon Hill Doesn’t Answer, a satire of the Israeli Defense Force. The film follows the adventures of a reserve military unit stationed in the Sinai including a draft dodger, a term that has been used by Netanyahu’s coalition to describe reservists who refuse to continue volunteering if the legislation passes. At one point, the generator malfunctioned, and the screen went dark. One protestor saw the opportunity for a quip: “You see, this is what will happen to the country!”