Oceans of Israeli flags, steady drumbeats, cries of “Democracy!” Water cannons, police on horseback, protesters dragged off the ground.
For seven straight months, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in the most sustained and intense demonstrations the country has ever seen.
The protesters are part of a grassroots movement that rose out of opposition to a contentious judicial overhaul spearheaded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies.
The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions, to changing the way judges are selected.
While the government says the overhaul is needed to reduce the powers of unelected judges, protesters, who make up a wide cross section of Israeli society, say the overhaul will push Israel toward autocracy.
With a key portion of the overhaul nearing a final vote early next week, protesters are vowing further “days of disruption” and calling for strikes and general unrest.
Here’s a look at why they are still protesting, months into the government’s efforts:
What’s in the overhaul?
Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious allies say the package is meant to restore power to elected officials. Critics say it is a power grab fueled by various personal and political grievances by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, and his partners, who want to deepen Israel’s control of the occupied West Bank and perpetuate controversial draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men.
The proposals include a bill that would allow a simple majority in parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Another would give parliament the final say in selecting judges.
On Monday, parliament is expected to vote on a key bill that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.”
Proponents say the current “reasonability” standard gives judges excessive powers over decision making by elected officials. But critics say that removing the standard, which is invoked only in rare cases, would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or firings and open the door to corruption.
Protesters say Netanyahu and his allies want to change the law so they can appoint cronies to government posts — and particularly so that they can fire the country’s independent attorney general, according to Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. Supporters see Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara as a bulwark against the overhaul.
The measures “make it more difficult to conduct oversight” over arbitrary decisions of elected officials, said Yohanan Plesner, the institute’s president. “This is one chapter of a broader plan and program of the government to weaken the checks and balances.”
In a speech Thursday, Netanyahu dismissed accusations that the plan would destroy Israel’s democratic foundations as absurd. “This is an attempt to mislead you over something that has no basis in reality,” he said.
Why are there still protests?
Netanyahu’s government took office in December and almost immediately unveiled its plans to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court.
Protests sprang up in major cities, business leaders balked at the plan and, perhaps most critically, military reservists in Israel’s air force and other key units threatened to stop reporting for duty if it passed.
The protests prompted Netanyahu to pause the overhaul in March and enter talks with opposition lawmakers. After talks broke down last month, Netanyahu announced in June the overhaul would move forward.
Protesters accuse Netanyahu of changing tactics, but not his broader goals, by moving forward in a slower and more measured way in a bid to lull the protesters and dull their opposition.
“The government got smarter,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the protest movement. “They saw the fallout of trying to ram the overhaul through, and they decided instead to do it piece by piece.”
Protests have intensified as the coalition’s efforts to make the overhaul into law have moved forward.
On Tuesday, protesters crippled the city’s main highway and blocked train stations, and thousands of people marched nearly 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem over the weekend ahead of Monday’s vote.
Why are protesters so determined to protect the judiciary?
With a relatively weak system of checks and balances, the judiciary plays a large role in checking executive power in Israel.
In the U.S. for example, Congress has two houses that operate independently of the president and can limit his power. But in Israel, the prime minister and his majority coalition in parliament work in tandem.
That leaves the judiciary as “the only check on governmental power,” according to constitutional law professor Amichai Cohen.
Israel also has minimal local governance and lacks a formal constitution. This means that most of the power is centralized in parliament, Cohen said. The “basic laws” — foundational laws that experts describe as a sort of informal constitution — can be changed at any time by a bare majority.
With the overhaul, Cohen said, the Israeli parliament now threatens to further consolidate its power by weakening the judiciary.
“The government can do whatever it wants, because it controls the ability to change even the basic laws,” Cohen said.
Historically, the Israeli judiciary has played a role in protecting the rights of minorities, from Palestinian citizens of Israel to noncitizens and African asylum seekers, Cohen said.
By weakening the judiciary, critics say, Israel’s government — led by a male-dominated coalition whose members have advocated full annexation of the occupied West Bank, discriminating against LGBTQ+ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and limiting the rights of women — will be granted near-total control.
“It will be a hollow democracy,” said Fuchs.
What happens next?
Over the weekend, Israeli media reported that the country’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, alarmed by the growing refusals to serve in the military, was pushing for a delay in Monday’s vote. It was unclear if others would join him.
If the “reasonability” bill is passed, it will mark the first major part of the legislation to become law.
Fuchs predicted the law would be appealed to the Supreme Court. If the court strikes it down, Netanyahu’s coalition will have to decide whether to accept the ruling. That could set the stage for a “constitutional crisis.”
In the meantime, the protests that have rocked the country for seven months will likely grow in intensity.
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