The leaders of the Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a prominent protest group against the government’s judicial overhaul efforts, said they never imagined being in a situation where they are organizing weekly mass protests against the government and fighting for Israel’s future amid a threat “from inside.”
Speaking to CBS’s “60 Minutes” in a report filmed in July and broadcast on Sunday night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed on a long-awaited trip to the US, the protest leaders said Netanyahu’s hardline coalition and its bid to overhaul the judiciary and curb the High Court’s powers were “an existential threat to Israel.”
“When a regime, a government wants to gain unlimited power, people are afraid. And the people in the streets today are afraid that the government is going to gain unlimited power without judicial review,” said Ron Scherf, who like many others in the group served or is currently serving in the military.
A commander in the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, Scherf said he and others have defended Israel over the years against many external threats, but “now, the danger is from inside” and is “much more” serious than any outside enemies.
“This is an existential threat to Israel,” said Scherf. He added that he never imagined himself protesting this way, “not even nine months ago, not even three months ago, and it’s a situation that is deteriorating so fast we could never believe it.”
Omri Ronen, another protest leader from the Brothers and Sisters in Arms group and a former officer in an elite commando unit, said that Israel’s High Court of Justice was “our last line of defense. And this is our last safeguard. We need them empowered. We need them independent. That’s what we fight for.”
“What happened in Hungary and Poland will not happen here,” Ronen vowed, in reference to those countries illiberal democracies.
Shira Eting, a former combat helicopter pilot, told “60 Minutes” that “every democracy that turned into a dictatorship was elected in a democratic way. This is how democracies turn into dictatorships.”
“If you want pilots to be able to fly, and shoot bombs and missiles into houses knowing they might be killing children, they must have the strongest confidence in the people making those decisions,” said Eting, alluding to IAF strikes on terrorist targets.
In the moral values of the decision-makers? she was asked. “Exactly,” she said.
“It’s not like you wake one day and you say, ‘Okay, now we’re a dictatorship.’ Small, small things will change the face of Israel. People, you know, tend to say, ‘Wow, in my country this can happen? No, no. It’s only these guys shouting.’ But it’s happening,” said Scherf.
Ronen said the protesters were “not joking,” and “really trying to stop [this] and we will succeed.”
Netanyahu’s hardline government has now faced 37 consecutive weeks of mass protests against the judicial overhaul and fierce opposition from many segments of society. Warnings from allies, including the US, have also been largely ignored.
The government has repeatedly attacked the unprecedented protest movement — among whom are military reservists, pilots, academics, legal professionals, and business and tech leaders — with the latest broadside coming from Netanyahu, who accused protesters of “joining forces with the PLO and Iran” in their activities, which he framed as being anti-Israel.
Speaking to reporters before boarding his flight to the US early Monday, Netanyahu said “Nothing surprises me anymore with these demonstrations,” when asked by a reporter about the protests against him, including those planned in the US.
“Whoever is organizing these protests does it with a lot of money. These are organized, financially backed demonstrations. They have crossed all borders. They have made it so that blocking roads is [ostensibly] a normal thing, that violently harassing public figures is a normal thing, that refusal [to serve in the military and in the reserves] is a normal thing. And therefore, when they defame Israel before the nations of the world, it seems normal to them. I don’t regard it as normal. When I was the head of the opposition, I never did that.”
He said he was about to give his 12th speech to the UN General Assembly as prime minister, and recalled pro- and anti-Israel demonstrations over the years. “But this time, we see demonstrations against Israel by people that are joining forces with the PLO, with Iran, and with others.”
Netanyahu was met at the airport by hundreds of protesters. Thousands also rallied nationwide Sunday night to protest against the coalition.
In the 13-minute “60 Minutes” segment, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the chief architect of the judicial overhaul, dismissed as “baseless” the concerns and fears of opponents to the judicial remake.
“No democracy can accept a situation that the government, the elected government that has a majority in the parliament, won’t be able to pass any bill and to do anything because there are protests, because there are some people that are against it,” Levin said.
The justice minister defended the hardline coalition’s bid to remake the judiciary and constrain its independent powers by arguing that “the situation in Israel is that the Supreme Court is above the government, is above the parliament, is even above the will of the people. What I want to do is to balance it.”
“The judicial system is completely controlled by a group, an elite group… where more than half of the Israeli population finds itself as if the judicial system is something that is almost against them,” he added.
Asked whether he would withdraw his legislation if Israel was at risk because of reservists not reporting for duty, Levin said that to do so would constitute the government relinquishing power to the reservists.
When it was put to him that “you have people in your cabinet who have made openly racist and homophobic statements, and they’re ministers,” Levin responded: “I can assure that the vast majority of the members of parliament that support this government stand firmly behind democratic and liberal principles.”
Asked to confirm that under the currently proposed legislation [which includes a preemptive court “override” clause], the government would be able to overrule the court, Levin replied: “That is not what I am offering.”
Supporters of the overhaul have argued that relevant laws are needed to curb the powers of a judiciary they say is unrestrained and overly activist.
Critics of the coalition’s plans say the legislative package will fundamentally alter Israel’s democratic system by stripping the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the governing coalition.
Last week, the Supreme Court held a high-stakes hearing on petitions against the first, and so far only, major piece of judicial overhaul legislation passed by the government — the reasonableness law, which prohibits courts from striking down cabinet and ministerial decisions based on their being “unreasonable.”
An unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over the highly charged session, and will issue their decision at a later date.
This week, with Netanyahu in the US on a trip more marginal than the one he’s hoped for sans a White House invite, protesters have vowed to follow the premier and hound him as he embarks on a series of meetings with world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly, including a much-anticipated sit-down with US President Joe Biden.
“The accused travels again to tell stories at the UN, and Kaplan Force will be there too!” the Kaplan Force protest group said in a statement, referring to the premier’s corruption trial. “In the coming week, the UN General Assembly will be held in New York and the protest is being organized to remind the world that Israel will not be a dictatorship.”
Expat activists have proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to hound the lawmakers wherever they appear, ensuring that they find no safe haven abroad from the political discord at home.
Luke Tress and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.