Israel moving closer to widespread civil disobedience

Yossi Mekelberg

Newton’s third law states that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. If evidence were required that the same law is applicable to politics, one need look no further than the struggle between the current antidemocratic Israeli government and the legions of ordinary Israelis who are determined, in a way the country has never before experienced, to protect the power and independence of the judiciary, and by that the democratic system, as fragile as it may be.
In recent weeks, the stakes have been raised between those who insist on wrecking the pillars of Israel’s democracy and those who are ready to defend it – literally with their bodies. Last week, the level of altercations between police and protesters was stepped up, especially the readiness – on some occasions, apparent eagerness – of the police to exercise brutality against peaceful protesters. For now, the albeit-halfhearted efforts to negotiate a compromise facilitated by President Isaac Herzog have failed. This is not only because the president himself is a rather lackluster and uninspiring character, but because any kind of compromise would be very difficult to achieve. The basic tenets of a democratic system, including the separation of powers and the checks and balances mechanisms, cannot be diluted. They either exist or they do not, and both sides know this.
Last week’s main trigger for the eruption of mass demonstrations across the country, which included disruption at the country’s major airport, was the Knesset’s approval of the “reasonableness” bill on a first reading. In its current version, it will prevent courts from using the reasonableness test to invalidate or even scrutinize decisions made by the Cabinet, its ministers and “other elected officials, as set by law.” In other words, the proposed legislation would allow the executive branch to be as reasonable, or more likely as unreasonable, as it chose to be, with no judicial oversight. This is wrong in principle, and a brief glance at the makeup of the current Cabinet gives little cause for confidence in their reasonable behavior. A number of these ministers have previous criminal convictions; the prime minister is currently undergoing a prolonged trial on charges of corruption, breach of trust and bribery; and six months of irresponsible and erratic behavior by this government has only underlined the need to retain the current reasonableness clause, which allows the courts to be an objective referee.
Back in January, when the protests began, had you asked most commentators how long they would last, most would have expected them to peter out within days or possibly a week or two. Nearly seven months later, the protesters have defied all predictions and claims that they lacked the stamina for a long battle. They have responded to the government’s successive ploys to irreparably water down the liberal-democratic system, they have been energized by their considerable successes in limiting its progress in this regard, and they have been constantly inspired by their cause and by their actual participation in these regular rallies.
If in the early days of the government’s vandalism of the judiciary, the members of the coalition behaved like children let loose in a sweet shop, and in their greed and callousness believed that winning an election was a license to do as they wished, including tampering with the very system that brought them to power, the massive resistance they have met with has forced them to take a different track.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has not changed its objectives, only its deceitful methods of achieving them. Instead of passing all these pieces of legislation almost at once, it has adopted the salami tactic. This bunch of democracy destroyers are treating the public with utter disrespect. They imagine that by getting rid of democracy slice by slice, they will lull the public into a false sense of security and the belief that they have averted the danger of their lawful democratic rights and privileges disappearing.
But those in power are wrong; very wrong. The instant response from the protesters to the passing of the reasonableness bill was one of anger, injecting momentum into their resistance with the call for a “disruption day,” which has became a showcase of the opposition’s strength and has also brought back to public discourse the refusal of many hundreds of reservists to show up for military service for as long as this legislation continues to be enacted.
There are discernible pressure points on the government – especially on those members who are still in touch with reality – that it cannot ignore. First is that, 29 weeks into the protest, it has a clear leadership and organization that can disrupt normal life very effectively and still, for the most part, stay within the law. It is the police who are losing their nerve and increasingly resorting to violence against the protesters, while making wrongful arrests that end in a quick release thanks to dedicated lawyers who are on 24/7 standby to represent those detained, while other very noisy protesters are rushing to the police stations where they are being held. Second, the threats of the reservists, who are crucial for Israel’s security, whether in the air force, the cybersecurity forces or the special units, not to show up for service is putting immense pressure on army chiefs and the government. The unconvincing and vitriolic attacks on these reservists by members of the government, many of whom have never served in the armed forces, are frankly insults to the intelligence and speak volumes about how desperate, not to mention pathetic, this administration has become, while most of the public falls for none of its lies.
Third are the signs of economic slowdown as a consequence of the political instability. And last but not least is the growing criticism from Israel’s closest ally, the US, including unambiguous remarks from President Joe Biden. Hence, Israel’s anti-government protests are continuing with a strong sense of purpose, while rallies in support of the government are few and far between. If Netanyahu’s coalition does not stop its reckless and cynical dragging of the nation toward dictatorship, the calls for civil disobedience by notable people such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former deputy head of the army Maj. Gen. Yair Golan will only find more and more fertile ground and grow to a point at which such actions could paralyze the country. The suggestion by some members of the government to put these two respected figures and others who stand with them on trial for treason is laughable.
At the end of the day, whenever the coalition throws more fuel on its bonfire of the country’s democratic institutions and arrangements, it sees more firefighters arriving in the name of democracy, who know that leaving this conflagration uncontained will see the kind of country they want to live in go up in smoke.