West Jerusalem – Thousands of protesters gathered outside the Israeli parliament, or Knesset, desperate to make a last-ditch attempt to push the parliamentarians inside to stop the government’s controversial legislation to overhaul the judiciary.
Instead, it was the opposition members of the Knesset who boycotted the final vote on Monday afternoon, as it became clear that the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in no mood to compromise, and last-minute negotiations collapsed.
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Far-right members of Netanyahu’s government were reported to have threatened to bring down the government if the legislation was not passed on Monday, having already been forced to delay the vote in March.
In the hours leading up to the final vote, senior current and former leaders of Israel’s army warned of the dangers involved with passing the legislation, noting the thousands of reserve soldiers who have promised to boycott duty.
For the protesters, many of whom walked from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, the outcome is a disaster.
“I think whoever voted for this did a terrible thing to their country,” Talya Miron-Shatz, one of the protesters, told Al Jazeera minutes after the Knesset voted.
Miron-Shatz – who said that she had participated in the huge opposition protests “every day, sometimes twice a day or three times a day” – expressed the defiant view of many in the crowd outside the Israeli Knesset.
“I am not sure what to do but I can’t take this lying down. I can’t believe that it is over,” she said.
When news of the bill’s final passing made its way through the crowd, some were stunned and others wept.
“I have not stopped crying” shared Michal, a 54-year-old protestor who views the current moment as “the lowest point” in her life.
Michal highlighted the split within Israeli society, with demonstrators outside “in shock” and the government politicians inside “taking smiley-selfies”, referring to celebratory pictures taken by members of the ruling coalition in the Knesset hall while the final vote was counted.
Mika, a protester who drove three hours from northern Israel this morning to attend the demonstration, explained her sadness as something that went beyond the issue of a simple law, and instead about “a historic change [in Israel] that was determined today”.
Another protester predicted “[Israel] will not be a democracy in less than a year [and today is just] a first step” towards greater anti-democratic measures “that will destroy us”.
The new legislation, known as the “reasonableness bill”, removes the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down government decisions deemed “unreasonable”.
The government says that the judges have gotten too strong and need to be reined in, while the opposition says a weakened judiciary means the government can act without any checks and balances.
But the legislation passed on Monday is just part of a wider judicial overhaul that the government is pushing for, which would further weaken the judiciary, long a scourge of right-wing Israelis.
So for many of the protesters in West Jerusalem, Monday’s vote is only the latest chapter in a multi-year struggle centred around defeating Netanyahu, particularly after he went on trial for corruption in 2020 – a legal battle that has yet to end.
Danny Lanser, who served in the Israeli Navy and is now retired, sees Netanyahu’s determination to pass the bill as “one person drowning in accusations and under trial, who decided to change the face of the nation in order for him to eliminate the trial and not take any responsibility for the consequences of his own actions”.
After being defeated in the 2021 elections, Netanyahu was able to win a majority in late 2022 after allying with far-right politicians, who see the judicial reforms as a pathway to “annex the West Bank without the control of the Supreme Court”, according to Lanser.
Lanser believes the “mutual interest” between Netanyahu and the ultra-nationalist ministers in wanting a weakened judiciary has allowed them to come together despite the opposition.
“It is a good thing that no compromise was reached because it sharpens the difference,” Lanser added. “If there was any compromise it would have clipped the wings of the resistance [opposition] forces.”
Lanser is already moving on to the next battles, likely to come when the Knesset reconvenes in October.
“On our side, we can point out that there are 155 laws in the [full judicial reforms package] and only one has passed,” he said.
Despite the framing of the protests as a battle for Israel’s democracy, there are some within the movement who believe that, without Palestinian rights within Israel and occupied East Jerusalem, the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, there can never be full democracy.
Amir, a member of the “anti-occupation bloc” from Haifa, views the bill’s passing as a minor detail in the “struggle for democracy”, which includes an end to Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
“We began in the north well before the judicial reforms in 2020, we stood against the occupation facing a lot of hate,” said Amir, referring to the inner backlash within Israeli society against Jews who are opposed to the occupation.
However, compared to nine months ago when he estimated that the Haifa anti-occupation bloc was “only about five people”, Amir now estimates the group to have grown to hundreds.
But while Amir does say that one of the organisers in the Haifa anti-occupation bloc is Palestinian, there is not widespread participation from the country’s Palestinian minority.
“Arabs barely come [to the weekly protests in 2023] … there are a few but it does not characterise the movement.”
Under the previous Israeli government, led by many of the figures who are now central players in the opposition, Israel began to conduct near-daily raids on the occupied West Bank, leading to the deaths of dozens of Palestinians.
Many Palestinian citizens of Israel therefore feel that the anti-government protests are not a place for them.
Ultimately, the cracks in Israel’s divided society only seem to be growing.
For Lanser, it is the “most severe crisis since the Yom Kippur War” – the 1973 war in which Israel was on the precipice of military defeat by Egypt and Syria.
Yet many are still determined to push back, even if that divide continues to grow.
“Nothing happened, we are going to defeat them,” said one group of protesters, as they set off to block a highway, setting the scene for more unrest in the months ahead.