The striking words coming out the mouth of Israeli army reservist Reuven Benkler sound more like those of an enemy combatant than a senior army officer who served his country loyally for more than 25 years.
But Benkler, who retired with the rank of general, says he believes Israel’s future is in peril and soft language won’t save it.
“We have a prime minister who is totally sick — he has people next to him who are all fascists,” said Benkler in reference to members of the new conservative coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benkler is a combat veteran of the war in Lebanon who, at 65, continues to count himself as a proud member of the country’s reserves. He is among a vocal and prominent group of reservists who’ve challenged the proposed judiciary changes and joined in with the street protests that have consumed Israel’s cities and communities over the past 10 weeks.
The latest demonstrations in Tel Aviv Saturday night, which organizers claim drew more than half a million people, are unprecedented and may represent the largest protests the country has ever seen.
“They are stealing the country,” Benkler said, referring to sweeping changes proposed to the country’s judiciary.
The overhaul, according to opponents, would weaken the country’s system of checks and balances and potentially erode the rights of minorities. They would also give the government the ability to override decisions of the Supreme Court that it doesn’t agree with through a simple majority vote in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset.
“What they are trying to do is create a state which is more or less like Iran, where secular people will not have the ability to live,” said Benkler, articulating a widespread fear among protestors that Orthodox religious groups which back the government would move quickly to impose their conservative ideology on the broader population.
Many others fear a creeping authoritarianism in Israel that once started, will be difficult to halt. It was a frequent theme mentioned by people CBC News spoke to at the Tel Aviv protest Saturday.
“I came here from Russia,” said protester Dmitri Sherykoff. “I saw how democracy failed, how democracy was lost.”
Sherykoff was sporting a rainbow flag and said he was thankful for his freedoms in Israel.
“I make these parallels because [in Russia] we have a government that never, ever hears the people. And in the end, we got what we got,” he said in a reference to how Russian President Vladimir Putin suffocated civil society groups and individual freedoms by systematically dismantling the country’s independent judicial system and other institutions.
Supporters of the government are just as adamant, however, that the changes are needed to tame judicial overreach and allow the present government to implement the agenda it was elected on.
“This reform is important,” said Boaz Bismuth, a member of the Knesset and a former diplomat and prominent journalist. He’s with Likud, the largest party in the governing coalition which is chaired by Netanyahu.
“In Israel you have judges who took for themselves the power to determine and decide — no one voted for judges, people voted for the members of the Knesset,” Bismuth told CBC News in an interview in his office in Jerusalem.
“I can decide something and the judge will erase my decision. This is why the override provision is so important.”
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s security minister and one of the most arch-conservative member’s of Netanyahu’s coalition, has made no secret of his desire to increase Jewish settlements in occupied territories and expel the Palestinian residents.
Taming the power of the country’s top court could expedite that process.
The huge turnout for this weekends’ protests — especially in Tel Aviv where as many as 300,000 packed the streets Saturday night — is significant as it indicates that rather than trailing off, popular resistance to the judicial changes may in fact be intensifying.
“They [opponents of the judicial changes] are certainly taking the country by surprise,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, a Canadian-Israeli public policy analyst and pollster who is usually based in Tel Aviv.
“I think that the government anticipated that there would be some pushback from the public but I think nobody predicted that reservists in the Army and the Air Force would start threatening not to show up for duty or specifically for training.”
There was even an extraordinary plea from Isaac Herzog, Israel’s traditionally non-partisan president, to scrap the judicial overhaul and begin again with a new package that is less divisive.
None of the interventions though have changed the coalition’s trajectory — indeed, Scheindlin says if anything they may have stiffened the government’s resolve to get the bill passed as soon as possible.
“It is the culmination of an aim that right-wing forces in Israel have wanted for a long time because they want to advance an agenda that violates liberal and democratic principles,” she said.
“They want to advance annexation. They want to advance a more religious and theocratic society. They are certainly not planning on stopping.”
This week, the legislation is expected to continue its rapid advance through the Knesset, with a committee scheduled to hold hearings on the package every day this week.
Notably absent from the debate — and outrage — over the legislation are Palestinian voices, who by and large have reacted to the potential changes in Israel’s internal power balance with ambivalence.
Despite the potential implications of expanded Israeli control over the occupied West Bank, the widespread Palestinian feeling appears to be that Israeli laws are deeply skewed against them anyway.
Holidays could see more strife
As Israeli society becomes increasingly polarized by the debate over judicial reforms, the situation in the occupied Palestinian territories has also grown increasingly combustible, with now daily confrontations between Israeli security services, settlers and Palestinians.
While not directly connected to the Supreme Court question, there is a relationship, said Reuven Hazan, professor of political science at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The extremists, at least on the Israeli side, are now emboldened by the fact that they have ministers in the cabinet who are voicing their concerns,” he told CBC News.
With the month-long Muslim observance of Ramadan coinciding this year with the eight days of Jewish Passover, Hazan says he fears a serious escalation in the violence.
“I don’t see this holiday passing quietly.”
So far in 2023, more than 80 Palestinians, including militants and civilians, have been killed in Israeli military raids. the same time, 14 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinian militants.
In one of the latest incidents on Sunday, Israeli troops killed three Palestinian gunmen who attacked their post in the occupied West Bank, the army said; a fourth gunman was detained after surrendering.
The Lions’ Den, a militant group based in Nablus, issued a statement claiming the three gunmen as members.
On the streets of Tel Aviv Saturday night, despite the elation many there felt at the huge turnout, there was also resignation that the outpouring of anger may not deter Netanyahu’s government from pushing the package through.
“My father ran away from Russia to live in a democracy and in a place, so that his kids, like me, will have a future,” said protester Miri Kantor. “And now I feel like I don’t have any.”
“I think as long as we are on the street, something will change — eventually,” said Gilad Engelberg, a psychologist. “Hope is the last thing to die.”