Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in the city of Tel Aviv on Saturday, February 4th, to protest the planned judicial reforms of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s conservative coalition government. While demonstrations have been overwhelmingly peaceful to date, a heightened pitch of fanaticism is entering the discussion, as several prominent figures in the anti-government protests have been accused of inciting violence against the government. In turn, the government has called for a strong response from law enforcement against these incitements, and the Shin Bet—Israel’s internal intelligence and security agency—has warned about the worrying turn in public discourse.
The controversy largely surrounds a series of comments made by Zeev Raz, a former fighter pilot; David Hodek, a prominent lawyer; and the former police chief Roni Alsheich. Zeev Raz made insinuations that Netanyahu could be assassinated, writing on social media that “if a prime minister stands up and assumes dictatorial powers for himself, he deserves to die, it’s as simple as that.” Hodek is currently under police investigation for a statement made at the Israel Bar association, saying that he “would not hesitate to use live fire” to fight the reforms.
This marks the fifth week of protests. The government is still insisting on pushing ahead with the legislative changes, hoping to bring them to vote by the end of February. The changes would see that judges are government-appointed, that the ability of the Israeli Supreme Court to strike down legislation would be curbed, and that legislation that is annulled can be reinstated with a simple majority vote in parliament.
Protestors say the reforms, which will give the government and the Knesset—the Israeli parliament—more control over the courts, represent a threat to democracy, the rule of law, and the independence of the judiciary. Speaking at the protest on Saturday, Alsheich stated that “[t]he proposal amounts to a coup d’état, no less than that.” This echoes the statement given by the main organisers of the demonstration, who said the reforms “will turn Israel into a Netanyahu dictatorship, crash the economy, and harm the security of the state.”
Government supporters maintain the opposite, saying that democracy will be strengthened by the reforms. According to the supporters of the changes, the existing system gives too much power to unelected judges and lawyers in overriding the moves made by elected officials. Speaking at a press conference in January, Justice Minister Yariv Levin criticised the technocratic and anti-democratic nature of the judicial institutions:
We go to the polls, vote, elect, and time after time, people we didn’t elect choose for us. Many sectors of the public look to the judicial system and do not find their voices heard. That is not democracy … I’ve warned against the damage caused by judicialization. Now, the time has come to act.
For the time being, it seems that neither the protestors nor the government will be willing to back down. While the dispute looks very unlikely to turn violent, and while the outcome is yet to be determined, analysts now warn that the polarisation caused by the issue could divide Israeli society for some years to come.