In Tel Aviv, the weekly Saturday demonstrations took on the air of a festival. The procession, a sea of Israeli flags and vuvuzelas, vibrates with repeated calls for the “De-mo-kra-tia!” A large platform faces the HQ of the Ministry of Defence, giant screens retransmit the speeches in other strategic places.
In less than three months, the movement against judicial reform has become the largest in Israel’s history. But this mobilization, which draws its strength above all from the center and the left, does not seem to stop the plans of the hard-right coalition led by Benyamin Netanyahu. She is determined to quickly pass laws that would castrate the Supreme Court and erode the separation of powers. For the protesters, this would turn Israel into a “dictatorship”.
“On the edge of the abyss”
The legislative train is launched at full speed to get the bulk of the overhaul passed before the Easter break in early April. On March 9, President Yitzhak Herzog gave a grave speech. “We are on the edge of the abyss. It’s negotiation or disaster. I appeal to the coalition and the opposition: take your responsibilities, or history will judge you. »
Saturday, March 11, there were nearly 95 rallying points; in all, they were at least 300,000 to go out throughout the country, half a million according to the organizers. According to the Israel Democracy Institute, almost a fifth of the population joined the protests at least once. That’s a 50% increase since January.
The organizers, a motley coalition of associations, would like to do better, and attract the “soft” right. They have therefore opted for simple messages: democracy and independence of institutions, which the authorities would like to subject to the parliamentary majority. Politicians have gradually faded from the fight, replaced by players who have been rather discreet until now: the high-tech sector first, and especially the reservists.
Last week, nearly an entire elite Air Force squadron decided to skip a day of practice. The action was eventually called off, but the warning is scathing. For the majority of Israelis of the Jewish faith, universal military service does not end after the mandatory three years. It also consists of taking up arms again for thirty to sixty days a year. The IDF is more than an army, it is a common experience for all of its Jewish citizens.
“The real danger is here”
Formed in January, the reservist association Achim leNeshek (“Brothers in arms”) has thousands of members, like Rohi, 40, who has just come out of a month of active service with his infantry unit in the Nablus region. Confrontations with new Palestinian armed groups in the northern West Bank are getting worse, and the Israeli army is responding with force and numbers. But for Rohi, smiling and shy, “the real danger is here”.
“We have signed a moral contract with the state,” says Yiftach Golov, a T-shirt in the group’s colors tight around his head. PhD student in biophysics, former artificer in an elite unit, he speaks quickly and well. What the judicial overhaul reveals is first of all a gaping hole in the formation of the Jewish state – the choice not to give itself a Constitution. It is partly the protection of its fundamental values – “democratic and liberal”, he insists – that worries the demonstrators. “This is our second war of independence, asserts Yiftach. We will win, for sure. It goes beyond politics. »
The Huwara effect
The police are also wiping out the slogan “Where were you in Huwara?” This Palestinian city, devastated by settlers under the eyes of the army after the murder of two Israelis on February 26, has become a symbol of resistance for the demonstrators, a cry of anti-system rage. “We can definitely speak of a Huwara effect,” said Eli Avidor, who marched on Saturday with a banner of Combatants for Peace, which brings together former Israeli soldiers and former Palestinian activists. “We were brought up in memory of pogroms, we grew up with song lyrics about the ‘burning village’ – and all of a sudden it’s coming from us? »
Alon-Lee Green, co-founder of the socialist movement Omdim BeYachad (Stand Together), hopes this could lead to a confluence of struggles. “We are protesting for our lives, for our safety – and by extension against a deepening military occupation,” he said. This government carries the judicial reform, but it also tries to annex the West Bank, and presides over the most violent period in the West Bank since the Second Intifada (from 2000 to 2005, editor’s note). To think that all these problems are unrelated is a huge mistake. »
Crucial questions raised
But the police too have been affected by the government’s plans, after the Tel Aviv commissioner was dismissed by his minister, Itamar Ben Gvir. Amihai Eshed had apparently not been tough enough with the protesters. Merav and Ami Escher, in the twilight of quarantine, saw him pass in the motorcade on Saturday, to applause. The couple have long campaigned against the military occupation. He stood a little away from the procession, uncomfortable in this tide of blue and white flags which, a few months ago, were the prerogative of the right.
“We don’t agree on everything, but it’s important to show our solidarity, assures Ami. Monster demonstrations in Tel Aviv like these, we haven’t seen that since the war in Lebanon. And the reservists, it’s unprecedented. “This raises crucial questions about the need for the Jewish identity of the state, about the protection of minorities,” adds Merav. In the political process that will inevitably follow, we will have to discuss all of this. »
The word is free
A new generation discovers that previously untouchable notions can be challenged. “Even at work, speech has been freed up,” rejoices Doron Meinrath, posted at the intersection of Kaplan and Da Vinci streets – the anti-occupation corner. “I work in high-tech. In the office, everyone knew my positions – but now we talk about it at the coffee machine. He says he sold at least 500 t-shirts in a week.
On Sunday, Yaïr Lapid, leader of the opposition, declared that he wanted to lay the groundwork for the drafting of a Constitution. But in the meantime, the confrontation is coming, inevitable. If there are no negotiations, the majority will pass the reforms, and the Supreme Court will be obliged, to safeguard its role, to challenge it.
“The judges must know that we are behind them,” recalls Iddo, 50, who joined Achim leNeshek in January – his first political action. “That’s why we’re going to keep going out. So that they can make this difficult choice. »
Ten weeks of crisis
January 4, 2023. Presentation by the Israeli Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, of a program of reforms of the judicial system which includes the introduction of a “derogation” clause allowing Parliament to free itself from the decisions of the Supreme Court.
January 7. Several thousand Israelis demonstrate in Tel Aviv against the new government led by Benyamin Netanyahu, to cries of “Democracy in danger”.
11 mars. Tens of thousands of demonstrators gather for the tenth consecutive week to denounce the reform of the judicial system.
2 avril. End of the winter session of the Knesset, a date before which the government hopes to pass the main elements of its reform.