Have Protests Stopped Netanyahu's Attack on Israeli Democracy?Roundup
tags: Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu
Bernard Avishai teaches political economy at Dartmouth and is the author of The Tragedy of Zionism, The Hebrew Republic, and Promiscuous, among other books. He was selected as a Guggenheim fellow in 1987.
On Sunday night, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a reserve major general whose mother had been a Polish refugee on the S.S. Exodus. His offense was patriotism. The night before, Gallant had appeared on prime-time national television, calling for a “dialogue” on the fate of the Israeli judiciary and a temporary “halt to the legislative process” that is, in effect, assaulting it. “The growing rift in our society is penetrating the I.D.F. and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to it,” he said. A source close to Netanyahu, changing the subject, said that Gallant was fired for his “feeble and weak response” to the rapidly growing number of reserve officers who, in protest, are refusing to appear for service.
The response from the street was anything but feeble. Overnight, mass demonstrations—of tens of thousands of mostly young people—erupted across the country, building on what have become regular Saturday-night events in the major cities. (During the rest of the week, some show up for improvised, digital teach-ins and spontaneous strategy sessions in towns and neighborhoods.) Protesters were especially focussed on Tel Aviv, where police used water cannons to clear the vital Ayalon expressway. People lit bonfires and chanted, “Democracy or revolt!” and, “You’ve taken on the wrong generation”—and, increasingly, “Bibi, go home.”
On Monday morning, all universities suspended classes to protest the legislation, which they described “as undermining Israel’s democratic foundations”; key hospitals curtailed medical services; and the Histadrut labor federation, which represents most public-sector employees and in which Netanyahu’s Likud is assumed to be very influential, joined with business leaders to call for a general strike. Ben Gurion Airport partially shut down. Banks closed after 1 p.m. One of Netanyahu’s criminal lawyers reportedly said that, if the judicial package went ahead, he would cease representing him. Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister and chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who had been both Netanyahu’s commander and a champion of Gallant’s rise, told a TV interviewer, “Pausing the [judicial] overhaul won’t stop the protests. We’ve passed the point of no return.”
By midday, Netanyahu, who had previously dismissed the demonstrators as “anarchists,” was reportedly planning to capitulate. And key members of his cabinet—including his justice minister, Yariv Levin, who has spearheaded the assault—were walking back their threat to resign if he did capitulate; they were considering, instead, how to hold on to power and buy time, with the religious zealots Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich insisting on eventual passage. Then, during the evening, without mentioning Gallant, or restoring him to his post, Netanyahu finally did precisely what his defense minister had asked for: he “suspended” the effort to bring more elements of the judicial package to a vote in this session of the Knesset and agreed to a period of dialogue with members of the opposition, though he stressed that he reserved the right to reintroduce the package in subsequent sessions. “One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities,” he said.