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Wanted: A plan to 'cope with protesters'

Israelis clash with police during a protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, July 3, 2023. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israelis are unrelenting in their resolve to wear down government officials who have repeatedly sought to implement overbearing laws that will dramatically change the character of the country, as well as the delicate balance of power. 

After 26 weeks of protests, with no sign of a let up, a meeting took place this past Thursday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his justice minister, Yariv Levin, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and a few others. Undoubtedly, the main topic of conversation was just how restless the natives are, necessitating “restrictions in public spaces, intended to deal with legal tools to cope with protesters.”

Although it was said that the meeting focused specifically on protesters who cross the limits, there may have also been a few warnings, by a beleaguered prime minister, to Levin and Ben Gvir, two ministers, in particular, who have been attempting to rigorously push their own limits, to change existing laws to further very specific agendas that will give them more power and control. 

But as protests continue, along with very pointed warnings from some of our greatest allies not to implement judicial reforms, these demonstrations may, indeed, have begun to make a dent in what has been an immovable impasse, because already the most controversial aspect of the proposed judicial reforms has finally been axed. 

The “override” provision, which would have permitted the Knesset to overturn a ruling by the Supreme Court, with a majority vote, is said to no longer be a threat. Additionally, Netanyahu has alluded to the fact that the appointment of judges will not be made by the coalition, although it’s possible that another iteration of the same proposal, no less controversial, could be planned. 

Either way, in an unconvincing attempt to allay many fears of the public, Netanyahu, in an interview last Thursday, told The Wall Street Journal, “I am attentive to the public pulse and to what I think will pass muster. I want changes that will stick for a generation.”

Although he claims that he’s trying to find middle ground, the continuing protests indicate that most Israelis believe nothing has really changed and, without their weekly massive presence on the streets, coalition ministers will not waste any time ramming through the laws which they want but which are opposed by a large percentage of the Israeli population. Furthermore, no one seems to think that coalition members will allow Bibi to bypass their wish list which they’re counting on him to facilitate in the same way that he hopes to get help from them.

In his interview, although he mentioned that the original proposal for the appointment of judges was also scrapped, he cleverly avoided what new structure would be implemented. Whether Dov Lieber, the interviewer pressed him further or whether the clip was edited, is unknown, but no answer was forthcoming, and the subject was immediately changed to Iran’s relationship with Russia.

This is part of the reason that the protests continue week after week. No assurances have been made to protesters, talks have been stalled due to the lack of a coalition representative and, in truth, no one has found any “middle ground” where compromises can be made so the general unrest would be able to subside.

If, indeed, the more controversial parts of the proposed reforms have been dropped at all, it is more likely because Netanyahu understands he no longer enjoys the support he once did as Israel’s longest-leading prime minister. 

Given the extreme right-wing, religious parties, with whom he chose to build his coalition, no one believes that his first loyalty is to the citizens of Israel but rather to himself, knowing that only they are committed to helping him escape his legal battles, once they make the necessary changes in the law that will then extricate him.  

It is, in essence, a marriage of convenience between the parties, where each gets what they want but all at the expense of freedoms, liberties and rights of ordinary citizens, not to mention the weakest among us, who would, undoubtedly, no longer feel protected absent a strong and impartial judicial system.

That is why a strategy about the best way to “cope” with the ongoing unrest is being sought. In some ways, it is more like a contest to see who will win this entrenched battle of wills. But given that Israel allows for the right to protest, per the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israelis will continue to pour out onto the streets, bridges and highways.

Even though blocking traffic falls under the category of a criminal offense, police officers have made every attempt to avoid arrests and, in most cases, have instead given warnings to clear the roads. In fact, this became a bone of contention between the National Security Minister and the Israeli police, because Ben Gvir has made it clear that he expects swift and immediate action, something which has not happened to his satisfaction. That was why Ami Eshed, Tel Aviv District Police commander was dismissed, back in March, when Ben Gvir lost his patience as protesters were not dispersed fast enough for his liking.

At this point, there is just too much at stake, as protesters don’t seem to have any desire to capitulate to a government they see as overbearing, fanatical, intolerant and arbitrary. Consequently, coping may be the best outcome coalition members can hope for, because if these protests continue for much longer, there is no telling where this will all lead to.

But shouldn’t a government strive for more than just “coping” with its exasperated citizens? 

Should they not read the handwriting on the wall and take their cues from the growing numbers of exiting Israelis and fading investors who, themselves, can no longer cope with the threat of dismantling democracy in their homeland?

Let’s face it. If any meeting needs to take place, it should be one which explores ways to return the hearts of the people to their leadership, because heaven knows, Israel has more than enough enemies. Our government should not be among them!

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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