It’s two in the morning, and hundreds of mainly young Israelis, having spent hours chanting and marching through the streets of Jerusalem, are sitting around a bonfire with the Knesset on one side of them and the Prime Minister’s Office on the other.
Benjamin Netanyahu is believed to still be holed up in his office, having reportedly spent the past several hours in various “security and legal” consultations with key ministers and advisers, notably including Justice Minister Yariv Levin. He can probably hear the calls for him to resign, perhaps even the youngsters’ singing derisively that he’s “messing with the wrong generation.”
Five hours ago, he announced that he had fired Yoav Gallant, the defense minister who had privately advised him that his legislation to destroy the independence of the judiciary and curb its powers was starting to pose a direct security threat to Israel. With growing numbers of reservists warning that they would not serve in the army of a country that was no longer democratic, and opposition to Netanyahu’s power grab starting to spread into the standing army too, Gallant urged Netanyahu on Thursday to freeze the bills and convene the key decision-making security cabinet.
The prime minister did neither, and so, on Saturday night, Gallant made his concerns public, telling the nation in a TV address that “the growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state.”
Rather than heed Gallant’s warning, Netanyahu doubled down, as he has time and again over the past three months, amid escalating national protests and warnings of catastrophe from the president, economists, bank chiefs, academics, the tech sector, international allies, and almost every past IDF, Shin Bet, and Mossad chief.
In firing Gallant, Netanyahu apparently believed he would deter any further would-be rebels in his Likud party, and thus smooth the path for his remake of Israel’s governance. The first key piece of legislation, giving the coalition almost complete control over judicial appointments, was being readied in the Knesset Constitution Committee for its final readings in the Knesset even as the prime minister announced Gallant’s dismissal.
Far from quelling dissent, however, Netanyahu hugely escalated it. As news broke that Gallant had been booted — a defense minister sacked for the crime of doing his job, for sounding the alarm when he recognized a tangible threat to the security of the state — Israelis from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south took to the streets in fury.
And unlike the 12 weeks of rallies and demonstrations that have played out since Levin unveiled the hard-right coalition’s judicial “reform” package, these were spontaneous protests — an instinctive nationwide response to a prime minister who, for many, had now demonstrated beyond any lingering doubt that the country’s well-being was less important than his own political and personal interests.
Burning tires on Tel Aviv’s main Ayalon Highway, converging on Netanyahu’s private residence in central Jerusalem, the demonstrators were no longer calling for the removal of Netanyahu’s revolutionary legislative package, but for the removal of Netanyahu.
As Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and one of his successor’s most potent critics, told a TV interviewer, “pausing the overhaul won’t stop the protests. We’ve passed the point of no return.”
Netanyahu has always been a cynically divisive leader, but his assembly after his November 1 election victory of the most extreme coalition in Israeli history — composed of his own increasingly nationalist Likud, two ultra-Orthodox factions, and three far-right Jewish supremacist parties — deeply alienated the half of the electorate that voted for opposition factions. He then appointed leaders of some of those parties to dominant positions in his government, and unleashed Levin on the judiciary.
The premier has also since gone to war against the attorney general, passed a law to try to escape a conflict of interest agreement intended to bar him from dealing with legislation that might affect his ongoing legal trial, and is now advancing a bill that would allow non-transparent donations to finance his legal costs. Levin, meanwhile, declared last week that were the High Court to try to strike down the legislation with which the coalition intends to shackle it, the justices’ ruling would simply be ignored: “We certainly won’t accept it.”
But the termination of Gallant — ditched during the sensitive Ramadan period, with terror threats at a high, Hezbollah watching closely from across the northern border, and Iran closing in on the bomb — catalyzed a new level of protests on Sunday night, immediate and impassioned.
“People who have risked their lives many times, and lost colleagues, in the service of a democracy are not prepared to do so in the service of a dictatorship or a dictator,” said Barak.
Sending love to friends, family and colleagues in Israel this evening. Israeli democracy will prevail ❤️????????pic.twitter.com/klZwG9FxFX
— Yiftah Curiel (@yiftahc) March 26, 2023
A little after three in the morning on Monday, the patience of the police units on the Ayalon Highway expired, and they waded into the few thousand protesters who were still blocking the road, using no little force to clear it — dashing, for now, the hopes of those who wanted to turn the area into a kind of Israeli Tahrir Square, a center of resistance until Netanyahu has gone.
Israeli police clash with protesters as they attempt to clear the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. pic.twitter.com/PFXR31B7xF
— BBlues100???????????????????????????? (@BBlues100) March 27, 2023
Back in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had yet to issue any response to the protests. A few of his ministers had called for the overhaul legislation to be temporarily halted; Levin was reported to be threatening to resign if that were to happen. Members of the Knesset Constitution Committee had long since gone home for the night, but its next session was scheduled for 8 a.m.
Also scheduled, however, were more demonstrations — including outside the Knesset on Monday afternoon.
The actions of the Netanyahu government these past three months have shown Israelis how vulnerable our democracy is — with no constitution, no entrenched basic rights, a coalition government determined to neuter the only brake on its own excesses, and a prime minister indifferent to the widening anguish, division, and harm he and his allies are causing.
Despite all the reports in recent weeks of disaffected Israelis looking to abandon a country they’re finding increasingly hard to recognize as their home, Sunday night’s eruption of protest showed an energized citizenry determined to defend its rights and freedoms.
For those who were out on the streets, and many more besides, it is Netanyahu who is the “clear, immediate, and tangible threat” to the nation. And there will be more nights like this, and no prospect of healing Israel’s rifts, so long as the duly elected prime minister remains in office, abusing his power.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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