“The biggest crisis in the history of the country”. This is how one key politician has described the massive wave of protests, unrest, and strikes currently affecting Israel. Let’s look at why people are taking to the streets and what is causing so much anger on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
- To take to the streets (idiom) – When people take to the streets, they express their opposition to something in public and often violently.
- Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest against the military coup.
- To walk out (phrasal v) – to refuse to continue working and leave your office, factory, etc. to show your employer that you are unhappy about something.
- Workers are threatening to walk out over pay.
- Reform (n) – a change or set of changes made to a system, law, organization, etc. in order to make it more modern or effective.
- Essential reform of the banking sector is under way.
- Judicial (adj) – relating to the legal system and the branch of government responsible for the legal system
- The judicial system has been historically biased against minorities.
- Unfit (adj) – not suitable or good enough for a particular purpose or activity.
- The building was declared unfit for human habitation.
- To undermine (v) – to make someone less confident, less powerful, or less likely to succeed, or to make something weaker, often gradually.
- A succession of scandals and revelations has undermined the government over the past year.
- Rupture (n) – an occasion when something explodes, breaks, or tears.
- High winds caused the oil tank to rupture.
- Unrest (n) – disagreements or fighting between different groups of people.
- The president is cutting short an international trip because of growing unrest in his country.
Protests in Israel
Hundreds of thousands of people have been taking to the streets in Israel, holding massive protests against big changes to Israel’s legal system. It is the largest wave of protests in the country’s history, with some estimates suggesting 6.5% of the country has been campaigning!
Israel’s labour unions have joined in with the unrest, causing the largest airport, shops, and hospitals to shut down as workers walked out of their jobs. Society stopped as unprecedented strikes were carried out! Protests initially began at the beginning of the year, and have grown each week with thousands of people spending their weekends campaigning in the country’s major cities.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the key figure behind the proposed reforms, caused even more anger by firing the country’s defence minister who had publicly criticised the changes. Israel’s opposition party leader Yair Lapid described the situation as the “biggest crisis in the history of the country”.
On Monday, the Prime Minister announced he was delaying a key part of his plans in order to calm down some of the protests. But it remains to be seen what will happen next.
I have had a couple of Israeli Thinking in English listeners reaching out over the past few days, asking me to record an episode to help them discuss this topic in English. And I think it is an important issue, involving political and legal vocabulary, that will benefit everyone listening!
Today, I want to look at what is happening in Israel in more detail. Why are people protesting? And why is Israel’s Prime Minister pushing for the controversial reforms?
Why are Their Protests in Israel?
There are hundreds of thousands of people protesting on the streets of Israel. Why?
The protesters are angry at the Israeli government’s plans to change the country’s judicial system, changes that are being pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is leader of the right-wing Likud party, and is currently in his third term as Prime Minister of Israel (he was previously Prime Minister between 1996 and 1999, and between 2009 and 2021).
Israel has a relatively fragile political system – I wrote an episode about this years ago titled What is Wrong with Israel’s Politics?. Netanyahu was elected in 2022, in what was Israel’s fifth election in only 4 years. Five election in 4 years! There is a lot of change, short term governments, and political upheaval. The current government in potentially the most right-wing and conservative government in Israel’s history.
After being re-elected last year, Prime Minister Netanyahu has tried to push through controversial plans to reshape Israel’s political and legal system.
What are the Changes?
The Israeli government wants to address the balance of power between the country’s government and supreme court. I’ve talked about the balance of political power before – in an episode on the US Supreme Court last year. But if you have not listened to that episode (you all should), here is a quick summary of checks and balances.
Political systems in most countries are based on 3 different branches. The executive branch (or government), the legislative branch (or parliament/congress/Knesset), and judicial branch (courts and legal system). Power is usually balanced between the 3 branches so that no one part of the political system is too powerful.
Netanyahu is aiming to change the current power balance between Israel’s government and court. Already, a law has been passed taking away the attorney general’s power to remove a prime minister from power if they are deemed unfit. It had been suggested that the attorney general was planning to declare Netanyahu unfit.
He wants to weaken to power of the Supreme Court. Under the plans, it will be easier for Israel’s parliament (the Knesset) to overturn supreme court decisions. The government will have a greater say over the appointment of Supreme Court judges. At the moment they are appointed by a committee, and the number of committee places reserved for the government will be increased.
And right now, government officials are required to follow the advice of the country’s legal advisors. Netanyahu’s plans will remove this legal requirement.
If these reforms succeed, they will be the biggest changes to Israel’s judiciary since the country’s founding in the 1940s.
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Why does Netanyahu want to change the system?
Why is the government trying to change the system?
First, its not a new idea. Political figures in the country, of all ideologies, have called for major changes and reform in the past. In particular, changes have been proposed numerous times to improve and reform the Supreme Court.
Israel, like the United Kingdom, has an unwritten constitution. You can find out more about constitutions in an episode I recorded last year, but the meaning unwritten is that there is no one single document with all of the country’s basic rules and laws written down.
Instead, Israel’s constitution is made up of a variety of different basic laws, not protected in the same way as constitutional laws, and gives the Supreme Court a lot of power. While the Supreme Court is powerful, it is also the only thing limiting the power of Israel’s parliament.
Netanyahu and his government are arguing that the Supreme Court no longer represents the people of Israel – they are too elite and only represent a small group of people. They also believe the Supreme Court has become too active. They suggest it is taking cases and becoming interested in issues that should not concern the Supreme Court.
The country’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, when announcing the reforms said, “We go to the polls, vote, and time after time, people we did not elect decide for us.” The people he is referring to are the supreme court judges.
Moreover, a lot of other countries involve politicians in the appointment of judges. The most famous case is the US, where the president appoints supreme court justices and other high profile judges.
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What do Opponents Say?
As I mentioned already, a lot of people in Israel believe the government and political system needs reforming. But many of the protesters and opponents to the proposed reforms believe they are not designed to benefit the country, but to benefit Netanyahu and his allies.
Only a minority of Israelis completely support the changes, and the vast majority (72% according to the Israel democracy institute) want a compromise to be reached. Polls suggest most people support the Supreme Court having some powers to limit government action.
Despite being elected Prime Minister again in December, Netanyahu is currently in the middle of a major corruption trial. He is accused of being involved in bribery and fraud but denies all charges. He signed a deal allowing him to become Prime Minister again as long as he was not involved in the changes to the judiciary. It was determined he has a conflict of interests.
However, the reform removing the Attorney General’s power to declare a prime minister unfit has largely been seen as a way of protecting Netanyahu from any consequences of the trial.
Many critics argue the changes go too far – they are too extreme. They will make the parliament too powerful and remove the only checks and balances exisiting in Israel’s political system. There are concerns it will harm the independence of Israel’s courts and put rights like freedom of expression at risk.
The proposed reforms have caused concern across the country. Key people in Israel’s financial, academic, business, military, and religious institutions have expressed their reservations.
Israel’s labour unions have joined the protests, causing the shut down of the country’s largest airport last week. And members of the country’s military and military reserves have also gone on strike in protest.
Israel’s Central Bank Governor warned the changes risk harming the economy, former security chiefs are warning political unrest is making Israel weaker, the Israeli President (not prime minister) described legislations as “misguided, brutal and undermines our democratic foundations,” and even key international ally the United States has been critical.
What Will Happen Next?
What will happen next in Israel? This is a really difficult question to answer, as things change quickly in Israeli politics and it is always hard to predict the future.
As I mentioned right at the beginning of the podcast, on Monday Netanyahu announced he was delaying the proposed changes. In his words, delaying the legislation would prevent a “rupture among our people”.
The unprecedented strikes, growing public demonstrations, and anger from all corners of Israeli society have likely forced the government to postpone their reforms. But for how long? The proposals are not cancelled, just delayed.
Interestingly, during his speech on Monday Netanyahu took absolutely no responsibility for the crisis. He did not apologise or express regret for the way his government are acting. Instead, he blamed an “extremist minority” for causing problems and criticised the military reservists who are refusing to take their place in the military.
The Jewish Power party, the far-right partners of Netanyahu’s Likud, allowed the delay after being promised the policy would be reintroduced when parliament returns from their break in April.
Israel remains a divided country. And many Israeli’s (including some of my listeners who requested this episode) are concerned that protests and unrest will continue for the rest of the year!
Israel is in crisis. While reforms to the judiciary are necessary, the way the government is going about those reforms, the extent of the reforms, and the reasons for the current reforms are controversial.
Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets to protests against the changes. Although Netanyahu has delayed changes for now, it is unclear what will happen in the next few months. Israel’s fragile political system may need another election
What do you think of this news? What is the biggest crisis in your country’s history?