“Divided we fall”: protests in Israel, strikes and the shadow of the conflict

Malte Ian Lauterbach reports on the judicial reforms in Israel that are dividing the country and straining the fabric of Israeli society to its limits while democracy is at stake. The ongoing protests have also sparked a general strike involving various areas of the country in support of the protesters. Universities, transport companies, airport staff in Tel Aviv and the country's largest union, the Histadrut, have stopped work, bringing public life in Israel to a standstill.

While barricades and smoke pots burn, the Israeli people turn against the government.

In recent weeks and months, protests against the planned judicial reforms in Israel have dominated the country's media landscape. I reported on these reforms several times for BSN. In a country that has always resisted the traditional political divide between left and right, these protests have, above all, further divided society. The far-reaching consequences of this division cast a shadow over everything that goes far beyond the actual issue.

The divide created by these protests is felt in every corner of Israel: families, friends and colleagues are on opposite sides of the dispute. An increasing polarization of the nation means that both proponents and opponents of justice reforms are refusing to compromise. As the country grapples with this growing divide, the fabric of Israeli society is being strained to its limits.

Painted by Ian Lauterbach.

As the third organ of the state, the judiciary is a supporting pillar of every democratic society. The ongoing debate over proposed judicial reforms has raised important questions about the nature of democracy, the rule of law and the balance of power in Israel.

As the protests continue to escalate, one thing is clear: the fight over the future of Israel's justice system has become a defining moment in the country's history. The outcome of this battle will undoubtedly shape the country's political landscape for years to come. The recent changes can in fact be traced back to two key events: the mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv on Saturday and the speech by former Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Demonstrations in Tel Aviv.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life took to the streets in Tel Aviv to protest against planned judicial reforms. The demonstration, one of the largest in recent memory, highlighted the strength of public opinion against the changes. The demonstrators, united in their cause, sent a clear message to the government that they would not stand idly by while their country's democratic institutions were threatened.

On Saturday evening, I spoke to some protesters in Tel Aviv who said they were fed up with the government's attempt to undermine Israel's justice system. They expressed fears that the proposed reforms would pave the way for political interference in the judiciary and undermine the rule of law. Many of them also accused Prime Minister Netanyahu of trying to cling to power and avoid prosecution for corruption by weakening the judiciary.

One protester, a 27-year-old software engineer, said to me: “I don't want to live in a country where politicians can influence the court system to their advantage. This is a slide into authoritarianism and I will not tolerate it.”

Another protester, a 42-year-old teacher, said: “I'm fed up with corruption and politicians who put their own interests above those of the people. It is time for change and we will not stop until we achieve it.” She also speaks out against the polarization of society. “As long as we are divided, we will not be able to defend our democracy. Divided we fall, and we will not allow that.”

As protests continue to escalate in Israel, some are wondering whether the demand for Prime Minister Netanyahu's resignation has become more important than the issue of judicial reforms. The country is on the verge of a breaking point, and it is uncertain in which direction it will tip. During a particularly emotional moment on Saturday, over 220.000 people sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Some see events in Israel as having similarities to the start of the Arab Spring and the outbreak of protests in Egypt.

The sheer number of people all gathered in one place, united in their protest against the government's judicial reforms, was overwhelming. The crowd sang the anthem with such passion and conviction that it was hard not to be moved. It was clear that they were not only singing the lyrics, but also expressing their hope and determination to fight for the future of their country.

In that moment, it was as if the protesters had become a voice speaking out against the injustices they saw in their government. It was a moment of unity in a country that has been divided for far too long. It was a moment of hope that change is possible, that people can make a difference.

But it was also a moment of uncertainty. Nobody knew what the future would bring. The protests had already transcended their original goal of opposing judicial reforms and were now demanding the resignation of the prime minister himself. The country was on the brink of a political and social crisis, and no one knew where it would lead.

In retrospect, that emotional moment of singing the national anthem may have been a turning point in the protests. It could have been the moment when the demand for Netanyahu's resignation became more important than the specific question of judicial reforms. It was a moment that I, at least, will remember for a long time, regardless of the outcome of the protests.

Few events in recent history will have as profound an impact on Israel's future as this first event. The second factor is inherently political and is directly related to the first event.

Meanwhile, late Saturday evening, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a key figure in the government, gave a surprise speech voicing his concerns about the reforms. Gallant expressed discomfort with the proposed changes and stressed the importance for Israel's security of preserving the independence of the judiciary and maintaining the delicate balance of power in Israel's democratic system.

He also highlighted the potential danger posed by the current division in Israeli society, saying: "The division in Israeli society can provide our enemies with an excellent opportunity." Gallant also pointed to the growing threat from Iran, which is trying to to undermine relations between Israel and Arab countries.

When Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Gallant on Sunday morning in full view of the public, it only fueled protests. By Sunday evening, the number of protesters across Israel swelled to over 700.000.

Several sectors of the country were brought to a standstill as universities, transport companies, Tel Aviv airport staff and the country's largest union, the Histadrut, walked off work to join the protests. As a result of this strike, public life in Israel is slowly coming to a standstill; as of midday today, planes have been unable to take off or land.

The unrest is not limited to the streets, but has also spilled over into the political arena. An open revolt is now brewing within the parties. The mayors of several cities have gone on hunger strike to protest against judicial reforms. Netanyahu's coalition is currently experiencing one of its weakest political moments as the contentious issue of judicial reforms has driven a wedge between the coalition partners. Representatives of parties within the coalition are now embroiled in a bitter public exchange, with mudslinging and accusations flying between them. While parts of the Likud join calls to pause and renegotiate the judicial reforms, others are threatening to leave the coalition if the judicial reforms are stalled.

The increasingly hostile atmosphere within the coalition has further destabilized an already unstable political situation. As public dissatisfaction with the proposed reforms continues to grow, the coalition's unity will be tested. These internal disputes could weaken the government's effectiveness not only in addressing judicial reforms but also other pressing issues facing the country.

It will be a challenge for Netanyahu to navigate this delicate political landscape. He must find a way to balance the competing interests of his coalition partners while addressing the concerns of the Israeli public and his own voters. If he is unable to do so, the coalition could fracture further, leading to greater political instability and jeopardizing the future of his government. His ability to pass laws and maintain political power is increasingly being questioned.

But the protests and open resistance are not limited to Israel's borders. Embassies around the world are on strike, and even the Israeli Consul General in New York, Asaf Zamir, announced his resignation. The future of Israeli democracy and stability is at stake. Former deputy chief of staff Yair Golan took to Twitter last night to call on all Israeli embassies and representatives to resign immediately and not serve an "illegitimate" government.

Amidst all the news coming out almost every minute, the reforms themselves have become a test of the state of Israeli democracy and stability, and the outcome will have far-reaching implications for the country's future.

At this point, it is unclear what the next steps will be for the Netanyahu government and its opponents. With the coalition itself divided on the issue, it remains to be seen whether the government will press ahead with reforms or whether it will be forced to back down in the face of growing public pressure. However, one thing is clear: the current crisis has brought Israel to a critical point, and the decisions made in the coming days and weeks will determine the country's fate for the next few years.