Israel Protests Explained—Why Millions Fear Nation Is Becoming Dictatorship

Police in Israel used water cannons on Monday to disperse protesters outside the country's parliament, the Knesset ahead of a vote on judicial reforms that has caused a nationwide uproar.

Protests have been escalating over the year against the government's so-called "reasonableness bill" which would remove the Supreme Court's power to cancel government decisions it does not accept.

On Monday, lawmakers passed the controversial bill. One expert told Newsweek that it was a step towards authoritarianism.

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets calling for the bill to be scrapped and for the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The bill is opposed by Netanyahu's political rivals, former top military officials, and figures in law and business, among others who say they endanger democracy.

Israel protests
Protesters wave the flag of Israel during a demonstration near the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023. It comes amid a months-long wave of protests against the government's planned judicial overhaul. MENAHEM KAHANA/Getty Images

The reforms are aimed at curbing the powers of the courts, which the government has said have grown too wide and interfere with legislation too much.

Critics say the reforms will allow the government to pass laws without any scrutiny and would aid Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption charges he denies. Secular Israelis are concerned the changes will strengthen the religious right.

As lawmakers discussed the bill, police sprayed protesters with water cannons as the demonstrators blocked a road outside the Knesset in Jerusalem. One demonstrator told the BBC that he was defying "dictatorship." Protesters outside the parliament building chanted, "We will never give up," the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

"The Israeli economy, the IDF, Israeli society—they have all been targeted for direct attack by a dangerous prime minister and a sick coalition," protest organizers said, according to Haaretz. "But Israel will not become a dictatorship. We, Israeli citizens, will give our lives to save the country, and we will win. In the coming days and months, we will all be called to the flag, and we will report for duty.

The Israeli government and the bill's supporters say the legislation is overdue although the plans go further than many would like. The bill proposes stripping the Supreme Court's ability to overrule the government or ministerial decisions it deems to be "unreasonable."

The court's power to review or reject laws would also be weakened and could be overruled by a Knesset majority, according to the legislation. In addition, the government would also influence who becomes a judge.

Amid growing tensions across Israel, thousands of military reservists, including Air Force pilots have threatened to refuse to work, leading to concerns the country's security could be compromised. A business forum representing Israel's largest companies went on strike on Monday along with about 150 tech companies.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog said the country was "in a state of national emergency" after his failed efforts at a compromise between Netanyahu and opposition leaders Yair Lapi and Benny Gantz.

U.S. President Joe Biden took the unusual step of commenting on the ally's domestic affairs, saying in a statement that "it doesn't make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this."

Biden's comment follows his invitation to Netanyahu to Washington, D.C., after seven months as president. The delay was considered a snub from Biden who has criticized far-right members of his governing coalition, The Hill reported on Sunday.

During Monday's proceedings, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, seen as a key proponent of the bill, said the passage of the law was good news for all of Israel, which "will be a little more democratic from today," Haaretz reported.

Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at London's Chatham House think tank, told Newsweek he agreed with the protesters who fear it was a move towards dictatorship.

"This is the step towards that. I don't know if they are going to take the full journey towards authoritarianism, but whether it's a step towards it—I have no doubt," he said.

Yossi said that the judiciary was crucial in Israel's parliamentary system because "the checks and balances are not as good because the coalition supports the government."

"So the judiciary was left to defend democracy, ensure good governance and that things are not done with impunity" and for there to be accountability from lawmakers.

"This is one of the really serious steps to removing this. I don't think we can understate how serious passing this legislation is."

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