It’s a strange experience to observe the place you live in the slide from controlled crisis into utter chaos in just under 24 hours. Crisis is a fairly common situation in Israel. There is always something going on. Hamas launches rockets; Israelis enjoy brunch. Hezbollah threatens to annihilate the country; Israelis know their air force will chortle.
This may be one of the reasons Israelis developed a “there he goes again” indulgence toward Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, and an eternal bad boy of local politics. Last November, he managed to pull off reelection, barely, while on trial for corruption.
Yet this time — with skunk water cannons turned on peaceful protesters, army reservists resigning and global banks and credit rating agencies downgrading Israel — Israel’s seven-month crisis is past and chaos has taken over. It feels as if the country’s DNA has been transformed. As always, it’s been a long time coming, but the change feels brutal and shocking. The air feels different.
Netanyahu is ploughing ahead with a radical project he calls “judicial reform,” which would subsume Israel’s judiciary under an almost all-powerful executive. Over the past seven months, it has advanced under cover of a shimmer of irreality that has torn open the country’s rifts. The only question was whether his hard-right, religious, nationalist government would back down in the face of massive international alarm and domestic resistance.
The latest chapter opened on Sunday night, when former President Reuven Rivlin, 83, addressed a crowd of about 100,000 opponents of Netanyahu’s attempted power grab and Jerusalem still felt like Jerusalem.
After a sweltering day, the hilltop city’s famous breeze seemed to caress the crowd.
Behind me, smiling protesters shared bags of grapes they’d brought from home. Their hope seemed to be that just maybe they could recreate March when a popular uprising with hundreds of thousands in the streets gave Netanyahu pause and pushed him to step back from a draconian law changing the Judicial Appointments Committee, that would have brought Israel closer to authoritarianism.
While Netanyahu has conspicuously dismissed increasingly dire warnings from everyone from President Joe Biden to Israeli reserve air force commanders, the idea of an Israel turned into a nation subservient to the iron fist of a strongman doesn’t quite jibe with lived experience here.