For a very long time, the silent majority in Israel was exactly that – completely inaudible, at least in public. This allowed an almost unbroken 18 years of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu-led administrations to erode the democratic system and all but kill off any chance of peace with the Palestinians. The consequences of this apathy are very quickly catching up with Israeli society and, for the first time in the country’s history, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest Netanyahu’s latest government’s unscrupulous attempts at a judicial coup. They are doing this with great passion and creativity, such as declaring last Thursday “Resisting Dictatorship Day.” By any standards, these protests are unprecedented and a watershed in the country’s history.
It is not as if Israelis have shied away from expressing dissatisfaction with their leadership and the direction that the country has been taking on many different issues for a very long time. But such dissent has been aired mainly in the confines of what are known as the “Friday night chats,” when families and friends gather in homes or in cafes and bars, and hardly at all in any organized, purposeful manner. They have tended to be endless whining sessions rather than genuine attempts to change Israeli politics. Those with the ability, character and skills to bring about positive change avoid this arena because they see it as corrupt and stagnant, where much energy is spent for very little outcome, while they could use their talents much more effectively in other avenues open to them in Israel, or even continue their discourse abroad. Yet, below the surface, there has festered a growing malaise, especially among those who feel that their contribution to the economy and society exceeds by far those who are better represented in government yet make only a marginal contribution to Israel’s wealth and well-being.
Arguably, those who have been taking to the streets countrywide every week for the last 11 weeks, including in some of the settlements, have had reason to do so for many years. Nevertheless, something about this sixth Netanyahu government has touched a raw nerve in those who are the backbone of Israeli society. It is the makeup of this coalition and the combination of the greedy and destructive nature of its far-right components, not to mention their lowering of the level of discourse to way below the lowest common denominator, that gets under so many people’s skin. It is also most obvious that, although Netanyahu does not really believe in the judicial reforms, he is nevertheless prepared to compromise every value and principle that he once held – and with it the country’s democracy and interests – to save himself from his corruption trial and its consequences.
For now, there is no clear leadership of this protest movement. However, it is very well organized and continues to gather momentum. As of yet, in order to maximize its support, it has focused on a limited agenda of opposing the judicial reforms and “defending democracy against dictatorship.” At this stage, unity in the ranks is perceived as more important than having a clear agenda. The focus is on defending and guaranteeing the independence of the judicial system and ensuring that the basic tenets of the democratic system, including civil liberties for all, remain intact. These protesters, whom Netanyahu and his political partners, including his son, label as “anarchists” and “terrorists,” are truly the salt of the earth and they are raising their voices because the democratic system is dear to them. They are worried that the damage caused by the weakening of the system’s checks and balances will give politicians more power at the expense of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, and will thus affect each and every one of them.
These people are those who keep the economy going and pay taxes, only to witness a government full of representatives of yeshivot (rabbinical seminars) students who do almost nothing to generate wealth and instead feed from the public purse. There is a consensus that the proposed judicial changes will badly harm what is regarded as a very vibrant and successful economy. They are also angry that the burden of military service is not shared equally and there are too many in this government who have never served, but who are pushing for further confrontation with the Palestinians in a conflict that the protesters as reservists – and their children as conscripts – will have to face. One particular practical-legal aspect worries those who serve in the army, be they full-timers or reservists, and it was recently highlighted by former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. He warned that, as long as the judicial system is perceived by the international community as independent, Israel enjoys relatively little scrutiny of the issue of war crimes in its military operations.
However, if this judicial independence is harmed, it is likely that the International Court of Justice in The Hague and international prosecutors will step in.
What is still kept at the margin of the protests – mainly to attract the support of those on the soft right who oppose the government’s attacks on democracy – is the Palestinian issue. As a result, many Palestinian citizens of Israel have been absent from the protests. Although sidelining the issue and the ills of the occupation may ensure more people are out on the streets, it is a complete eclipse of common sense on the part of those protesters who do not or will not understand that a major reason for the constant erosion of Israel’s democracy is that democracy cannot prevail if at the same time it oppresses millions of Palestinians, deprives them of their rights and installs among them a population of settlers who enjoy rights and privileges that are not bestowed on their Arab neighbors. This is not the only reason for the frail state of Israel’s democracy, but it is a crucial one. At present, the protesters’ fervor is showing no signs of diminishing and it might be the case that Israel, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of its founding, is in need of a major crisis that will redefine what it means to be democratic. These brave protesters, who face constant and vile abuse from both government ministers and, at times, police violence, could be the agents that both preserve Israeli democracy and, if they push themselves further intellectually, bring peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, therefore ensuring the equality and dignity of those who live on both sides of the Green Line.