Analysis: Protests and debate continue over Israeli government’s reforms

Over 100,000 Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv on Saturday night amid rising opposition to controversial judicial reforms proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

What happened

  • The protests, which also saw smaller demonstrations across the country, came as the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog, was said to be considering a proposal by the opposition to set up an independent commission to examine “balanced” judicial reforms.
  • Netanyahu on Sunday fired a key political ally from the cabinet, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, following a High Court order last week which said he was unfit to serve as a minister due to past convictions for fraud and corruption.
  • The attorney general appeared to step back from a confrontation with Netanyahu over the prime minister’s continuing corruption trial.
  • A report by the Institute for National Security Studies warned that the new government’s policies threaten Israel’s security and international standing, while former Bank of Israel governors predicted economic damage.

A recap

Earlier this month, the justice minister, Yariv Levin, outlined reforms to the relationship between the judiciary and the legislature. They would allow a simple Knesset majority vote to override High Court decisions annulling laws. The reforms would also strengthen the role of politicians in appointing judges and government legal advisers. The head of the High Court, Esther Hayut, has branded the plans “a mortal wound to the independence of the judiciary”. However, some neutral observers have accepted that the Israeli courts have engaged in judicial overreach.

Back to the streets

The demonstrations in Tel Aviv were the biggest seen yet in the country and follow protests last weekend in which 80,000 people took to the streets of the coastal city. Police placed the figure last Saturday in Tel Aviv at 110,000, while organisers claimed 150,000.

  • Thousands more joined demonstrations in Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Herzliya and Modi’in.
  • Lapid and former defence minister Benny Gantz joined the throngs in Tel Aviv. The rally was addressed by former Likud minister Moshe Ya’alon, now a fierce critic of Netanyahu and one of the leaders of the protests.
  • Addressing the crowds, the renowned Israeli author David Grossman said: “The State of Israel was established so that there would be one place in the world where … the Jewish people, would feel at home. But if so many Israelis feel like strangers in their own country, obviously something is going wrong.”
  • Haaretz analyst Anshel Pfeffer, who attended the protests in Jerusalem, a more religious and right-wing city than Tel Aviv, commented: “I don’t think I’ve seen such a wide political range at any Israeli demonstration before.”
  • On Tuesday morning, hundreds of employees at a series of major hi-tech companies in Tel Aviv took part in a one-hour “warning strike” against the judicial reforms. The workers had been told by bosses that they were free to participate in the action “according to their conscience and views”.
  • Polls suggest that a clear majority of Israelis oppose the reform package, which is only backed by around one-third of voters.

Herzog enters the fray

While attempting to maintain his office’s traditional non-partisan character, Israel’s president, former Labor leader Isaac Herzog, has made clear his unease at the government’s direction. Yesterday, he told a conference: “The democratic foundations of Israel, including the justice system, are sacred and we must protect them. The dramatic reform, when done quickly without negotiation, rouses opposition and deep concerns among the public.” On Monday, Lapid said the president was considering his call to establish a commission to “offer a balanced and reasonable recommendation to improve the judicial system and find the proper balance between the legislative and judicial branches”. However, other opposition leaders, including Labor’s Merav Michaeli, say they oppose any form of compromise with Netanyahu.

Deri fired …

The heat around the issue of judicial reform was increased last week when the High Court ruled in a 10-1 vote that Deri could not serve as a minister, due to previous criminal convictions and the fact that, as part of a plea deal last year, he had pledged not to undertake further involvement in public life. Netanyahu had appointed the leader of the Shas party as deputy prime minister, as well as interior and health minister. While lavishing praise on his ally and pledging that he would “return Aryeh to his appropriate place … as soon as possible”, the prime minister obeyed the court ruling and fired Deri.

… Netanyahu next?

The right’s fury at the court’s ruling against Deri was heightened by reports that the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, was mulling ordering Netanyahu to take a leave of absence due to his own corruption trial. Critics say that the proposed judicial reforms might present a conflict of interest. A letter, signed by the leaders of the coalition parties, protesting against any such move led the attorney general to publicly deny that she had held “discussions relating to the leave of absence for the prime minister”.

Away from the streets

Away from the protests, the government’s reforms have continued to come under heavy attack.

  • On Monday, a senior official at the Bank of Israel, Professor Moshe Hazan, quit his post on its monetary committee in order to join the protests, saying that “Israeli democracy is in danger”.
  • Hazan’s move followed a warning on Sunday by two former Bank of Israel governors that the “weakening of the judiciary system” endangered foreign investment into the country and threatened the Jewish state’s credit rating.
  • Also on Monday, the INSS delivered its annual assessment to the president, cautioning that the government’s approach risked increased political polarisation. This could, in turn, weaken Israeli society’s social resilience, which the report labelled “a critical component in Israel’s ability to cope with external threats”. The INSS also suggested that Israel has “a stronger military and international standing” than its enemies but that this could also be undermined by the new government’s stance.

What happens next

Gantz said on Monday he already detected “the enormous impact of the public outcry and demonstrations”, claiming that coalition supporters are beginning to quietly sound their unease in the Knesset’s corridors. However, media reports suggest Levin and Netanyahu are determined to push ahead and not water down their proposals.