Ehud Barak warns some overhaul opponents could die but predicts no civil war

Ex-PM tells US media ‘we’ll win, through the most nonviolent protest ever,’ says Netanyahu doesn’t have the ‘troops, will or capability’ for civil war

Former prime minister Ehud Barak attends a protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak attends a protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Former prime minister Ehud Barak warned of potential casualties among protesters demonstrating against the government’s judicial overhaul, but forecast that the tensions current roiling Israel over the proposed measures to curb the judicial system’s powers will not devolve into civil war.

During an interview Tuesday in New York, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting for the UN General Assembly, Barak said Israel was entering a period of “civil, nonviolent disobedience,” while touting the weekly mass protests against the proposed shakeup of the judiciary since the start of the year.

“[The protest movement] will not stop. We will block this attempt on the life of Israel as a democracy and we will win this battle,” Barak told the CBS television network. “It might take time, some people might lose their lives along the way. I told the people we will have to face toil and sweat and tears, hopefully no blood, but there might be some violence; [it] always comes from the right-wing.”

“We will put an end to it, whatever the price will be,” he added.

Despite Barak’s forecast of continued unrest, the onetime Labor party leader said he was “confident that against all warnings, there will be no civil war in Israel.”

“No way. Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t have troops and he doesn’t have the will or capability to do it. We will win, through the most nonviolent protest ever,” he said, using the nickname of his former political partner and rival.

Barak, who has become a harsh critic of Netanyahu in recent years, is a vocal figure in the protests and previously urged civil disobedience, leading to fiery denunciations by coalition figures. Some have called for him to be jailed, while a member of the ruling Likud party said that “in other countries, such a person would be up for hanging.”

In his interview, Barak suggested that Israel would become “a de facto dictatorship” if the overhaul passes, but vowed it would not.

“I don’t even want to think about it. We are not going to turn into a de facto dictatorship, whether it’s the Polish version, the Hungarian version or the Turkish version,” he said. “We the people are defending our democracy against an attempt to destroy it from within… Democracy should be capable of defending itself.”

“It’s not a judicial reform,” Barak continued, arguing that the overhaul was instead an effort to undermine the judiciary’s independence and “push Israel out of the family of democracies.”

Barak also railed at Netanyahu’s far-right partners Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and Public Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, comparing their appointments to the idea of leaders of the far-right Proud Boys group being tapped to head the US Treasury and Department of Homeland Security. He accused Netanyahu of allying with them in a bid to end his ongoing trial on corruption charges, in which the premier denies wrongdoing.

“That’s what we the people are standing firm [against],” he said.

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich, in 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In line with consistent polling, Barak noted the judicial shakeup proposals are opposed by most Israelis and that Netanyahu did not make the issue a centerpiece of his campaign before last November’s elections, in which his right-religious bloc won a majority of seats.

“[Netanyahu] is very heavily isolated, desperate, almost kind of out of focus and balance, and his government is blatantly illegitimate and in my humble opinion even illegal when it tries to change the very system,” Barak charged.

Opponents of the overhaul say the legislative package will undermine Israel’s democracy and rights, and threatens the country’s security, economy and international standing. Its supporters say it will rein in an activist court system and restore power to elected officials.

The anti-overhaul protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people for the past eight months from innumerable sectors of Israeli society including academics, business leaders, legal professionals, military and security experts, reservists, and members of the security establishment and the tech sector.

Abroad, expat activists have proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of government ministers and Knesset members during recent visits to New York and other cities in the US, using a network of sympathizers to pursue the lawmakers, including during Netanyahu’s trip this week.

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