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Protests Sweeping Israel Are Demanding Democracy But Ignoring Palestinian Rights

Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his defense minister who opposed the judiciary reforms for demoralizing occupation forces.

Workers across Israel are taking part in a general strike Monday to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disempower Israel’s judiciary. This comes after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, on Sunday over Gallant’s warning that the judicial overhaul represents “a clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state.” Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken part in protests in recent days, shutting down large parts of the country and demanding the government withdraw its plan, which would give parliament more power to appoint judges to the Supreme Court and overturn its rulings. The Supreme Court is one of the few independent checks on the Israeli government, and critics warn Netanyahu’s judicial reforms would turn the country into a dictatorship. For more on the political crisis, we speak with journalist and activist Haggai Matar in Tel Aviv.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the growing political crisis in Israel. Workers across Israel are taking part in a general strike today to protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disempower Israel’s judiciary. Critics say the moves could turn Israel into a dictatorship. The strike has shut down Israel’s two main sea ports. Flights have been suspended at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. The strike has also shut down schools, banks and other institutions.

Over the weekend, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took part in protests. Many blocked roads and highways, shutting down large parts of the country. On Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who had warned that plans to overhaul the judiciary posed a, quote, “clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state.” These are the voices of some protesters in Tel Aviv this weekend.

PROTESTER 1: Soldiers from the Yom Kippur War, this is an emergency time for the democracy of Israel. And we’re all here to fight for the liberal democracy and our rights in the Jewish state, which was established 75 years ago. We all have to fight for our rights because of the plans of Benjamin Netanyahu that want to turn this nation into a dictatorship.

PROTESTER 2: What we are doing here tonight is protesting against the government, wants to get all the power to itself and take all the rights from our citizens. And this is why we’re here, fighting for our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: As hundreds of thousands of Israelis call for preserving democracy in Israel, few are demanding democratic rights for all Palestinians in these protests.

We go now to Tel Aviv, where we’re joined by Haggai Matar, executive director of +972 Magazine.

Haggai, thank you so much for joining. There’s so much happening and so quickly changing in the streets right now of Israel. Talk about the significance of the mass protest and the firing — Netanyahu’s firing of the defense minister.

HAGGAI MATAR: Thank you, Amy. And thank you for having me.

This is truly an unprecedented moment, and “unprecedented” is an understatement. We have never seen such a massive, powerful, committed protest movement in Israeli history. There’s really been nothing even to compare it to.

Right now people are demonstrating throughout the country. People are blocking main roads and seaports and so on, with the unions just joining today. I think it’s interesting to note, and not a coincidence, speaking of Palestinians, that the reason that kind of really pushed the unions to join, the universities and others, kind of the larger institutions, to join the protest movement is the firing of the defense minister, who said that the steps Netanyahu is taking is threatening Israel’s defense. That is still kind of the rallying message for many Israelis for this protest movement. And while the chants are for democracy and for equality, it still feels like for many people it is an internal Jewish conversation.

At the same time, I have to say it’s incredible and very inspiring to see such a force of people coming out and trying to defend democracy, albeit limited and only for Jews — which is, of course, no democracy at all. But still, the power of it is truly incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister who resigned, it’s not as if he didn’t support weakening the judiciary as Netanyahu was pushing it through, but explain what he objected to. Also, the consul general, the Israeli consul general, here in New York just resigned.

HAGGAI MATAR: Yes, the Israeli consul general is a liberal, from the left. He’s kind of a remnant from the previous government. In fact, that he stayed this long is surprising.

But, for Yoav Gallant, he’s really a hawk. He’s also a war criminal. He was the responsible general for the war crimes of the Cast Lead operation in Gaza in 2009. He is no defender of democracy in any way. The only reason he decided to step up against Netanyahu was that the army is basically collapsing. The central and most important units that sustain Israel’s Air Force and Intelligence Corps are basically filled with thousands of people who are saying that they will refuse to continue service, or their reserve service, if the legal overhaul goes through. So, Gallant, as a former general and a defense minister, says, “We cannot sustain Israel’s defense without an army. The army is collapsing because of these reforms. It’s not that I don’t support them. We just don’t have an army left.” So, that’s where Gallant is coming from.

And when Netanyahu’s response is not, “OK, I’m listening,” but, actually, “I’m going to fire you just because you disagree with me,” that was kind of the last straw that pushed the unions and other major players into the game.

AMY GOODMAN: You say he should have been fired, but he was fired for the wrong reasons, Haggai.

HAGGAI MATAR: The entire government should be fired. But, you know, it’s there, and everybody there are playing some part in different kinds of war crimes. And he’s being fired for the wrong reasons, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what’s happening in the West Bank and Gaza right now. I mean, you have this unprecedented mass protest, Histadrut, the unions demanding change and the stopping of what’s happening. But how has life changed in the West Bank and Gaza?

HAGGAI MATAR: So, Gaza has been very much the same, under the same siege for over 15 years now, just the same situation, which actually means people’s lives continuously deteriorating, but not in any very substantially different way now than they were one, two or five years ago.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, we have seen Israel, over the past year and a half, escalating measures of annexation, of plans for ethnic cleansing, of attacks on Palestinians, which has led to more and more resistance on the side of Palestinians, with the Palestinian Authority basically losing control of entire parts of the West Bank, and militants stepping up their attacks on Israelis. And that also has been ongoing since even the previous government and is ongoing and escalating these very days.

I think Palestinians also, in many ways, are just looking at what’s happening inside of Israel and waiting to see what plays out and where this is going. This government, which was seen as a stable far-right government with very dangerous plans for Palestinians, might collapse within a matter of days. So, Palestinians now just started the holy month of Ramadan, always a very strenuous time, are basically looking to see where things are going at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the parallels with the United States between Netanyahu and Trump — both are under investigation. Netanyanhu has been indicted for corruption. Trump is about, it looks like, to be indicted. And both trying to — now completely going after the judiciary. In fact, if these judicial changes went through, wouldn’t that also benefit Netanyahu personally?

HAGGAI MATAR: Yes, of course. And that is his own personal motivation. There is kind of a cluster of motivations for this attack on the judicial system, and Netanyahu’s personal and some other ministers’ personal interests for their indictments for corruption are one element.

The other elements are plans from the religious parties to promote a clerical agenda, a very extreme agenda of Jewish religion taking over the somewhat secular nature of the country, and plans for forced annexation and forced deportation of Palestinians. All these things are things that the judicial system — which has not been an ally to Palestinians in any way or a defender of human rights in any way — has put in place some checks and balances, and those are the checks and balances around corruption, religion and annexation that they’re trying to dismantle right now.

The difference, by the way, between Israel and the U.S. is that Israel doesn’t have a constitution and doesn’t have any mechanisms to stop this from happening, except from the power of the people that are out in the streets.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would happen if the government did collapse? I mean, every hour it’s being said that Netanyahu is about to address the nation, though he hasn’t.

HAGGAI MATAR: We are hearing that Netanyahu is very likely in the coming few hours to actually announce a halt to the reforms. He understands that he cannot move forward, that the power against him is greater than he’s ever seen before internally. So he will announce a halt, most likely.

And then the question is: What happens next? Will he succeed to still take charge of his government? His coalition is falling apart, with the far right saying, “If you’re stopping the reform, we’re going to leave.” So it’s likely that the coalition will collapse. And then, what comes next?

The highest chances are for a new sort of coalition between the right and the center in which they will kind of aim to create a government of healing, so-called, and try to offer some protections to the judicial system and stem the far right, but also protect the essential nature of the state as an apartheid state. That will be kind of off the table, off negotiations. I think there are — and the protest movement will accept that. The protest movement will accept that warmly.

I think there are questions as to — to what degree will Palestinians accept that? And to what degree will international allies of Israel, that have been very, very concerned with what’s been happening, including international finance and big capital, that has been pulling away money, divesting from the Israeli economy — to what degree will it be willing to reinvest and reengage with Israel, without some process with Palestinians, without Israel adopting equality and an end to apartheid as a policy? If the international community accepts Israel under these conditions of yes to apartheid, no to judicial reform, that will mean that the system will stay basically as is. We can only hope and demand that international players hold Israel to account also on apartheid, and not only on the recent measures.

AMY GOODMAN: Haggai Matar, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of +972 Magazine, speaking to us from Tel Aviv.

When we come back, a quarter of humanity lacks access to clean drinking water. We’ll look at the fight to protect water across the globe. Stay with us.

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