Rallying against looming budget, anti-overhaul protesters may be overreaching

Protest leaders say fighting against the partisan state budget is an extension of opposing judicial revamp — but the change in strategy has led to some discomfort

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Anti-overhaul protesters gather in Tel Aviv, May 20, 2023. (Amir Goldstein/ Courtesy)
Anti-overhaul protesters gather in Tel Aviv, May 20, 2023. (Amir Goldstein/ Courtesy)

Twenty weeks into their sustained campaign against the government’s plan to siphon off judicial power, leaders of the national protest movement have made an apparent change in strategy.

With legislation to shake up the judiciary on hold until Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passes a state budget by its May 29 deadline, the protest movement has now twice held major demonstrations against the planned allocation of billions of shekels to sectoral interests that answer the demands of Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox political partners.

Coalition politicians have long attacked the anti-overhaul protest movement as a left-wing attempt to topple Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition and force new elections. By expanding their focus to the budget and its largesse for ultra-Orthodox religious study and settler priorities, demonstrators were attacked across social media for ostensibly revealing their hand, implying that their opposition to the judicial overhaul was really part of a larger ploy against a government they did not want.

The protest movement, a loosely organized confederation of over 50 groups that has consistently drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis to the streets in the past four-and-a-half months, has no political leadership, but demonstrations are frequently addressed by opposition politicians from the right to the left of the political spectrum.

To the extent that the protest movement has lay leadership, its representatives are adamant that the budget issue is part-and-parcel of the judicial overhaul plans, arguing that budget concessions to key allies are necessary to keep the coalition afloat.

“The protests are not entering a new direction. The government is using the salami-slicing technique and giving money to their political cronies is part of the danger of a dictatorial regime,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the national protest movement.

Demonstrators light flares during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on May 20, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

“We saw these techniques used in Poland and Hungary and will not allow the government to succeed,” he told The Times of Israel. The protesters’ demands stand, he added. They want the judicial overhaul off the table completely and to remove any potential threat of the rise of a non-democratic regime.

Ami Dror, a prominent protest activist who previously oversaw Netanyahu’s security during the premier’s first term in the late 1990s, similarly said that “the budget connects” to the judicial fight because “it’s clear that the reason the prime minister is willing to spend NIS 13 billion in political bribes is to maintain his coalition in order to pass” legislation to redraw power lines.

The cabinet last week approved NIS 13.7 billion ($3.7 billion) worth of coalition funds mainly allocated to support ultra-Orthodox institutions and programs, a move that drew fierce criticism from opposition parties.

“Right now we’re not seeing any movement with the judicial coup,” Dror said. But every move the government makes leads to that end-goal, “so that they can pass the judicial coup,” he added.

Protest leaders have said they believe the Netanyahu government will turn its sights back to passing the controversial judicial overhaul plan after the budget is approved.

With this rationale, on Saturday evening, the Tel Aviv protest that has become the movement’s flagship demonstration shifted its focus from judicial independence to budgetary allocations.

The nearly 100,000 protesters gathered in the city unfurled signs that read “looters’ government,” with protest groups explaining that this “refers to the government’s attempt to give NIS 14 billion of taxpayer money to the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist settler parties.”

Last Wednesday, the message was even more explicit, as thousands of protesters converged on the central ultra-Orthodox enclave of Bnei Brak, home to Knesset Finance Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni.

Protesters march in Bnei Brak against the billions in funds provided to ultra-Orthodox parties in the state budget, on May 17, 2023. (Omer Fichman/Flash90)

The rally was held to protest the state budget, which Gafni’s committee approved for its final Knesset votes a day prior.

“We are marching on Bnei Brak to make it clear to the government that is destroying our home — and in particular to the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which is with one hand collaborating with the dictatorship and with the other hand looting the coffers,” organizers said before the rally.

This coming Tuesday, protesters from the high-tech sector plan to rally outside of the Knesset, to “stop the plundering,” as the budget is expected to go up for its final votes.

If the budget does not pass by the end of the day on May 29, Israel will face its sixth round of elections in four years.

Whether or not countering the budget is another line of attack against “dictatorship” or against enabling the coalition that wants to change judicial power boundaries, the strategy has made some within the anti-overhaul protest uncomfortable.

“In terms of strategy, if we focus on the budget, we will lose the momentum of the real thing,” said one of the leaders of a major protest group, who spoke to The Times of Israel on the condition of anonymity.

Other prominent protest figures said that there were “more directions than people,” and that the dozen or so figures that lend their voices to the national leadership are not clear on their “precise goals.”

Pressure to attack the budget has come from the high-tech protest faction, which is also deeply concerned with how a deficit-widening budget may affect Israel’s macroeconomic position, especially as increased spending may worsen already high inflation.

Other corners of the protest movement are still figuring out their position toward the new line, underscoring the challenges in presenting a unified front among a large group of parties lacking centralized decision-making.

Hebrew-language media was flooded on Sunday morning with Tel Aviv protest participants who said they came out to demonstrate against weakening the judiciary, but were “uncomfortable” with expanding into what they felt was a political or social fight against the ultra-Orthodox community or settlers and their representatives.

Organizers of Saturday’s protest in Jerusalem stressed that their rally was directed against the government’s “harmful moves” and didn’t feature “hate against any community in our Israeli home — not the Haredi, nor the secular or Arab [communities].”

With only a week until the 2023-2034 budget is expected to be finalized, after which judicial legislation is expected to return to the fore of the coalition’s work, it is not yet clear whether the budget debate is a small crack in the protest movement’s strategy, or a larger one in how protesters view themselves and their struggle.

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