image Photo: Flash90

Anti-gov’t protests sweep Israel

The nationwide demonstrations against judicial reform plans by the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to gain momentum.

By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner

Tens of thousands of Israelis today participated in rallies as part of yet another planned day-long disruptive campaign aimed at bringing the country to a standstill.

The nation has been gripped by weekly and increasingly raucous nationwide demonstrations erupted just days after the Netanyahu government took office, following announcement by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin of a sweeping “reform of governance” that will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.

Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary..

Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.

Major roads were and intersections were blocked across the country throughout the day, including with the burning of tires.

The protests began outside the Jerusalem residence of ousted minister and leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas faction Aryeh Deri and culminated in a mass rally led by IDF reservists in the religious town Bnei Brak.

Targeting of the religious comes in the wake of the community’s overall support of the reform.

According to a new poll conducted for the religious Kikar HaShabbat news website, a decisive 88% of the ultra-Orthodox (sometimes called “Haredi”) support the reforms with just 7% opposed. A surprising 87% said they backed the move even if it is accompanied by a negative financial outcome such as higher costs of living or hikes in interest rates. Moreover, 65% of those polled rejected any attempts to reach a compromise with those opposed to the judicial reform.

Clashes between police and protestors have risen, and at least 87 people were arrested or detained for questioning.

There has been an increasing number of IDF reservists who have declared unwillingness to show up for voluntary duty if the reform passes. Many of the veterans have served in the most elite units including many of the most operational forces in the Air Force, Intelligence Services and Special Operations divisions.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant today called on reservists to continue their service.

“The IDF is the defensive tool of the state of Israel – without the IDF, there is no existence for the State of Israel and its citizens. Any phenomenon which destabilizes this matter is dangerous,” he said, stressing, “We must not only fight and reject but also denounce any phenomenon of this type, no matter its reasoning, because it takes us to a discussion which we cannot afford.”

Jerusalem’s top Defense Minister then broke from government policy by calling for a delay in the controversial legislation and the immediate government dialogue with opposition leaders.

IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, who has been mostly silent on matters of the judicial reform, has also warned against deepening division in Israeli society.

“There are certain cracks that can form which we will not be able to repair in the future. But I think that we have the responsibility, from every opinion and direction, to prevent cracks from appearing. Refusal is a ‘red line,’ it should not be in the military protocol. It is unacceptable to discuss refusal, it is unacceptable to act on refusal, because we carry a mission that should be explicitly performed with distinction; it enables our lives and it also enables the very existence of this dispute, which needs to be protected all around so that it can proceed, hopefully in a dignified manner,” said the top military leader.

Gen. Halevi went on to stress the critical role of IDF reservists, who amount to the largest component of the Israeli military. Moreover, the Chief of General Staff also rebuked the slanderous accusations which labeled reservists who protest the Judicial reform as “traitors” or “anarchists.”

“Every person in this room shares the same love for this country, the same love for the IDF and the same willingness to risk (their lives) for important goals. The reservists are an inseparable part of the IDF and take part in all of its missions. I vigorously oppose the inappropriate remarks that were made toward reservists and service members. The word ‘traitors’ should not be used; there are none here,” he underscored.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu initially voiced deep appreciation for those serving in the reserve units of the IDF, Israel Security Agency (ISA, Shin Bet), Mossad and Border Police, he declared his expectation for “the IDF Chief of General Staff and the Directors of the security services to vigorously fight against refusal, there is no place for refusal in the public discourse. A state that values life cannot tolerate such phenomena and we will not tolerate them.”