|Record numbers of Israelis took part in protests on Saturday night as opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms continues to mount.
- An estimated 250,000 people took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and over 90 other locations.
- Almost all the reservists in the Israeli air force’s elite Squadron 69 have said they will refuse to report for duty on Wednesday – the highest-profile such action by military reservists.
- The first public signs of unease in Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged, with former speaker Yuli Edelstein calling on the government to pause the reforms.
- In the hint of a possible deal, President Isaac Herzog suggested on Monday that a compromise agreement was “closer than ever”. But opposition leaders are refusing talks with the government while it continues to advance the legislation. The controversial package increases the executive’s control over the judiciary and severely curtails the ability of the courts to overturn legislation which contravenes Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
Week 9: no signs of protests abating
Now in their ninth week, the mass protests against the judicial reforms are continuing to grow.
- Opposition leaders fanned out across Israel to address protests. As usual, Tel Aviv saw the biggest demonstration, where protesters were addressed by the former Likud education minister Limor Livnat. Mocking the government’s overblown rhetoric attacking the protesters, she began her speech: “Hello to all the anarchists, hello to all the terrorists, hello to all the patriots.”
- In conservative Jerusalem, large crowds marched from the president’s residence to Netanyahu’s private home. In Herzliya, opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed demonstrators. Benny Gantz, leader of the National Unity party, led the protests in Be’er Sheva, while Ashdod saw Avigdor Liberman – a former Netanyahu ally turned arch critic – join the protests for the first time. Former foreign minister Tzipi Livni spoke at a protest in Ra’anana, while former United Arab List MK Tale bel-Sana also addressed the Be’er Sheva rally.
- In Haifa, Labor leader Merav Michaeli vowed no compromise with the government. “We won’t let them take away our democracy – we will keep protesting and demonstrating until we win,” she said.
- Protest leaders have designated Thursday a “day of resistance for democracy” and there are expected to be hundreds of protests across the country.
- Senior police officers attacked the head of Tel Aviv’s police command for the use of excessive force, water cannons and stun grenades during protests in the city on Wednesday’s “day of disruption”.
Reservists refuse to show up for duty …
- Over the weekend, it was revealed that all but three of 40 F-15 pilots stationed in the Israeli Air Force’s Squadron 69 have said they will not attend training this Wednesday.
- One reservist from the squadron, which operates aircraft that have targeted Iranian positions in Syria and would be required in any Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities, said: “Somebody is trying to change the fundamental contract on the basis of which we enlisted and were prepared to risk our lives. We aren’t refusing to obey orders. We are signalling that we won’t be prepared to serve a dictatorial regime.”
- On Friday, approximately 150 army reservists serving in cyber units said they will stop reporting for duty if the judicial reforms are pushed through, while 300 Artillery Corps reservists on Monday attacked the government’s “regime coup”.
- While both Lapid and Gantz expressed sympathy for the reservists, they said they should report for duty as usual. Reservists are an integral part of the Israeli military with reserve pilots usually devoting one day a week to operational training and duties.
- Underlining the unprecedented nature of the reservists’ stance, Haaretz commentator Anshel Pfeffer wrote: “Conscientious objection has for the first time in Israel’s history gone mainstream.”
- Over the weekend, Israel’s national carrier, El Al, denied that it had struggled to find a crew willing to fly Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to Rome for a visit this week.
… as former air chiefs blast government
All of the living former IAF chiefs wrote to Netanyahu expressing their concern about the proposed reforms. “From a deep familiarity with the central and special weight of the [Air] Force in national security … we are fearful over the consequences of these processes and the serious and tangible danger posed to the national security of the State of Israel,” the letter said. The warning came as the IDF chief of staff is reported to have told the prime minister of the potential consequences for the military of unease among reservists.
Disquiet in Netanyahu’s ranks
The first public signs of discontent have begun to emerge in Netanyahu’s Likud party.
- Former Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein called for the government to compromise and accept the opposition’s demand for a pause while talks are held. “We have the opportunity to halt the legislative process for a limited period. When you want to come and be adults and not like little kids in a kindergarten, then it’s definitely possible to get to a [joint] draft,” he suggested. In a television interview, Edelstein refused to rule out voting against the legislation as it currently stands.
- Edelstein’s desire for compromise appeared to be echoed by defence minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday. “The situation today requires that we talk, and quickly. We face grave, complex external challenges,” he said.
- In cabinet discussions on the 2023-4 budget economy minister Nir Barkat said business was concerned about the impact of the reforms. “Businessmen warned me that we could forget the budget, as there would be no money to fund it anyway,” he told ministers.
- Edelstein and fellow Likud MK Danny Danon, Israel’s former UN ambassador, signed a joint letter with opposition MKs Chili Topper and Gadi Eisenkot urging dialogue.
- Topper, a member of Gantz’s centre-right National Unity party, claimed on Sunday that Likud MKs were urging his colleagues to join the government so that Netanyahu could ditch his two far-right coalition partners, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit. But Topper said National Unity had been burnt by its previous involvement in Netanyahu-led governments. National Unity’s predecessor party, Blue and White, formed a short-lived and rocky coalition with Netanyahu during the pandemic.
- Further indications of the far-right’s baleful presence in the government were provided when national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir falsely suggested on Monday that intelligence suggested the protesters were planning to assassinate him and Netanyahu. Lapid called the far-right minister a “clown”, while Gantz demanded he be fired.
What happens next: talk about talks
Amid a continuing stand-off between the government and opposition about negotiations on the legislation, Herzog said on Monday that a compromise was “closer than ever” to reaching an agreement. The president was speaking to a meeting of mayors and local authority leaders as part of his effort to push for a dialogue. Three weeks ago, the politically neutral head of state urged the government to pause the reforms to allow for a compromise. He has since met with members of the opposition and government and said today that his “behind the scenes” talks were making progress. “There are behind-the-scenes agreements on most things. They make sense and they are reasonable,” said Herzog, a former Labor leader. He also said that the reforms as they stand “endangers the democratic foundations of the State of Israel”. While Netanyahu has said he’s open to negotiations, both Lapid and Gantz have insisted the government must pause the legislation’s passage through the Knesset while talks take place. “Israel is on the verge of a national emergency and Netanyahu refuses to stop,” they said in a statement.