Two Weeks in an Increasingly Tense Israel

A journalist’s diary chronicles the start-up nation’s tumultuous descent into suspended animation

Two Weeks in an Increasingly Tense Israel
Demonstrators in Tel Aviv, Israel, protest government plans to overhaul the country’s judiciary on April 1, 2023. (Eyal Warshavsky/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

One day before the onset of Passover, on April 4, with the hush of an impending holiday hovering over Israel, I raced to the pharmacy to fill a last-minute prescription just before everything closed down for the holiday. Two men were blocking my path, engaged in an energetic discussion. “He’s become a dangerous liability to the country. He’s just a liability,” said the older of the two, aged about 70, wearing the skullcap of an observant Jew. Looking worried, his younger companion replied, “So what do you think will happen?”

No one had an answer. “Netanyahu?” I asked, excusing myself as I slipped by. It could be a metaphor: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become the only thing Israelis talk about, all the time, everywhere. There’s no getting away from him.

For 13 consecutive weeks, thousands of Israelis — sometimes hundreds of thousands — have protested against Netanyahu’s controversial judicial overhaul, which would curtail the supreme court’s authority, boost politicians’ power and imperil the country’s democracy. The situation reached fever pitch on March 26, when Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, a 64-year-old with a strong following in the prime minister’s Likud party. Since “the firing,” as it is now known in Israel, we have followed this nondescript retired general as though he were an oracle. One week later, Netanyahu said he would keep Gallant on, making Israel’s “minister in limbo” an unlikely poster boy for the administrative and societal chaos that has engulfed the country.

This is a diary of the two freakish weeks in which the so-called start-up nation was transformed into a nation in suspended animation.

Thursday, March 23: Tension has been building all day, as it transpired that Netanyahu was receiving repeated warnings from his security chiefs that Israel’s military readiness was being eaten away by reservists unwilling to abide by his legislative push, or putsch. Most Israeli 18-year-olds are drafted into the army, making reservists one of the largest sectors in the country.

All anyone can talk about is how tense they feel. In my Jerusalem neighborhood, yoga teachers sent out reminders for classes, beginning, “Our breath is especially important in these difficult days.”

Gallant’s office announces that he will make a public statement at 6 p.m. Immediately, Netanyahu announced that it was actually the prime minister who had summoned Gallant for a tete-a-tete in the prime minister’s office. In the end, Gallant never made an appearance and Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, and is therefore prohibited from involving himself in judicial matters, made his own statement to the nation, announcing that he was “taking charge.”

By early next week, Netanyahu declared, his government would pass a law granting his coalition the ability to unilaterally appoint judges and supreme court justices. His hands were unfettered, he said, by the “Incapacitation Law,” passed earlier that day, which made it almost impossible for him to be declared unfit to serve, no matter what his legal entanglements were.

In other words, without mentioning Gallant, Netanyahu announced that the conflict-of-interest agreement which had enabled him to run for office despite indictments meant nothing.

Members of Shayetet 13, the Israeli SEALs, took a deep dive into the Red Sea off the city of Eilat, filming themselves in full scuba gear unfurling a banner that read, “Gallant, remember where you’re from and where you’ve sunk to.” The clip was shown on TV and widely seen.

Friday, March 24: At 4 a.m., Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, jetted off for a weekend in London, leaving the country completely at a loss when it comes to Gallant. At about 10 a.m., I set off for a small gathering in central Israel commemorating the 47th anniversary of the military coup that ravaged Argentina, where my family comes from. I read out the names of five members of my family who “disappeared” and were murdered in Buenos Aires in 1976. It feels surreal to be talking about such a coup in modern-day Israel, yet everyone is doing it. Every living former prime minister of Israel is referring to Netanyahu’s plan as a coup d’etat.

All anyone talks about — myself included — is the stomach-turning end to which we fear Israel is tumbling.

Saturday, March 25: It turns out that Gallant may have been impacted by the appeals to his honor. Late on Saturday, in a brief, somber, televised announcement, he warns Israelis that Netanyahu’s aggressive judicial agenda — which Gallant supports — had generated a “clear, immediate and material threat to Israel’s national security.” He recommends that the government pause its legislative blitz.

This was the 11th consecutive Saturday night of public protests since Netanyahu returned to power on December 29, 2022, after which he almost immediately launched what he dubbed his long-needed “judicial reform.” The protests are fueled by fiery political passion and yet, counterintuitively, also feel like a family picnic. When I was at the Jerusalem demonstration, two Orthodox Jews, a retired couple, carried a sign that read, “Save us from them,” a line from the Passover liturgy which refers to the Egyptian pharaoh but now, too, like everything else, also means Netanyahu.

Sunday, March 26: Netanyahu landed back home at dawn and maintained a sepulchral silence all day before firing Gallant at 9 p.m., with no public explanation. Netanyahu has a long history of disposing of his defense ministers, often with little repercussion. “The firing” unleashed a night of protests the likes of which Israel has never seen. Tel Aviv, the nation’s epicenter, was completely blocked off, as thousands of incensed and energized activists turned the highways leading into the city into massive campgrounds, complete with bonfires, tents and the movement’s now-ubiquitous anthem of “DE-MOH-KRAT-YAH!” — the Hebrew word for “democracy!”

In Jerusalem, a similar festival swept over town. I was eating in my ground floor apartment when the news of Gallant’s firing came through. About an hour later, I could hear the swell of voices outside. It was amazing.

At 10 p.m., thousands of citizens streamed toward Netanyahu’s official residence, with banners reading “SHAME!” By 4 a.m., thousands still lingered there and around the Knesset, Israel’s hilltop Parliament. I walked out of the house as a journalist, but at some point I melded into the crowds as a citizen. People were so furious, yet so peaceful. I was very moved to see this spontaneous upswell of humanity, and be part of it. Israel has never seen anything like that night — I’m not sure many countries have. I didn’t get home until 5 in the morning.

Jerusalem’s rumor mill clicked into high gear with the possibility that Netanyahu intended to rapidly pass yet another law overturning a separate supreme court ruling, and appoint himself defense minister, as he has done twice before.

That night, along with a few colleagues, I ran a Twitter Space on the unraveling of Israel in Spanish, which I speak fluently — there is an avid audience, especially in Latin America, and almost no coverage of the issue.

Monday, March 27: By the morning, the police had reclaimed the streets, but this did little to stop 100,000 Israelis from descending on Jerusalem, overwhelming the train system. An enormous, carnivalesque crescent of humanity formed around the Knesset. People sang “DE-MOH-KRAT-YAH” and waved national flags, as well as a few pride banners, while opposition leaders came close to declaring a premature victory.

“Hello to the combatants for democracy!” yelled Dan Halutz, one of two former army chiefs of staff who addressed the crowd. “It’s the day you succeeded in stopping Israel from becoming a dictatorship!”

More than 20% of Israelis have taken part in the protests. At mid-morning, after hours of tense anticipation, Arnon Bar-David, the powerful secretary-general of the Histadrut national union of workers, bellowed “Enough is enough!” into a microphone at his Tel Aviv headquarters and shut Israel down.

Israel has never before experienced a general strike in its 75-year history but, within minutes of Bar-David’s announcement, universities and schools canceled all classes, banks and malls shut their doors, and Israeli seaports and airports stopped operating. Hospitals let their staff go and established emergency protocols. Israel’s entire tech sector went dark, along with the Tel Aviv stock market.

Netanyahu was still weighing his moves — he was yet to address the public. In Washington, D.C., the White House expressed concern about the “impact on military readiness raised by Minister Gallant.” It appeared much of the Western world was looking at us, waiting to see what would happen next. In the late afternoon, I received a jubilant text message from a friend in London called Jonathan: “The world looks on with awe at all those who are signaling that the lunacy of Bibi cannot continue.”

With the entire country paralyzed, rumors swirled that Netanyahu was about to declare the legislative pause that Gallant had requested. Instead, in a short defiant speech at the end of the day, Netanyahu declared that while “we can pass it by ourselves” (his coalition has a majority of 64 out of 120 Knesset seats), he would instead “suspend” the legislation. Bar-David, a beefy, old-school labor type, took about a minute to embrace Netanyahu’s truce and, in turn, suspended the general strike.

Tuesday, March 28: I woke up to another text message, this time from an Italian friend, Laura, in Turin. “BRAVI!!” she wrote, congratulating Israelis. “Israel is the only country in the Middle East where taking to the streets still means something.” I felt an urgent need to correct both Laura and Jonathan, and let them know that the event, the democracy-in-motion, was still very much underway.

Two things became clear this morning. The first was that Netanyahu was playing a game of political poker. While he was delivering his remarks, Simcha Rothman, a top ally who chairs the Knesset’s Law and Constitution Committee, advanced the judicial appointments bill so that, at any given moment, with only a few hours’ notice, Netanyahu’s government could bring it to a final plenum vote.

Second, the firing of Gallant — the event that triggered this crisis — hadn’t actually taken place. Yes, Netanyahu announced he had fired his defense minister but, in reality, he never signed on the dotted line. In Israel, the dismissal of a minister takes effect 48 hours after receipt of a formal letter signed by the prime minister. Two days after Gallant’s firing, no such letter existed.

As confusion enveloped the country, reporters following the paper trail suggested that, while Gallant had perhaps not been properly fired, he had also not been reinstated. He was, as it were, non-fired. There were rumors that Netanyahu now wanted him to resign. No one knew what any of this meant. One reason for the muck-up appeared to be that Netanyahu had no credible alternative candidate.

If there is one thing to know about Netanyahu, it is that he loves ambiguity. He loves bombastic yet vague proclamations that confound the masses. The Gallant debacle reminded me of his “annexation” plans. In early 2020, a few months after being indicted, Netanyahu declared that Israel would annex wide swaths of the occupied West Bank by the arbitrary deadline of July of that year. He produced none of the maps, military preparations or actual legislation required to realize the plan.

Netanyahu thus enjoyed the better part of a year with barely any mention in the public sphere of his imminent trial. While his supporters and detractors squabbled over annexation, and journalists created expensive 3D media packages on the subject, it was all a Bibi-built decoy. Were we now witnessing another one?

Wednesday, March 29: Now, the U.S.-Israel security alliance was at risk. President Joe Biden has known Netanyahu for 40 years, longer than Netanyahu has known his own wife. Realizing the prime minister was attempting a sleight of hand, Biden said, “I hope he walks away from it.”

Netanyahu’s coalition — a motley collection of previously marginal theocrats, ultranationalists and religious extremists — demanded the hostile takeover of Israel’s system of government in exchange for allowing him to form a government. Without them, without this legislation, his government will fall. We realize there are zero chances Biden will get his wish.

Thursday, March 30 — Sunday, April 2: Israel spent the weekend abuzz with rumors: which candidate is running for which post, will Gallant keep his job, or will it depend on an “apology”?

The 13th successive Saturday night protest was vast, encompassing 150 Israeli towns and cities. For the first time, American flags peek out from the ocean of the Israeli blue-and-white, along with an outpouring of gratitude to Biden. Still, incredibly, no one knows who is acting as our minister of defense.

Monday, April 3: On Monday, eight days after dismissing Gallant, Netanyahu’s office issued the following statement: “In light of the developing security situation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will only be able to address the matter of the Minister of Defense going forward.”

No one has the foggiest idea what it means. Could the prime minister really be playing a solitary game of poker with the national security of this country?

Benny Gantz, one of Gallant’s predecessors, responded in an angry tweet that “Israel’s security is not some audition for a show or movie. Israel’s citizens need a set defense minister. Not in the future. Now.” Avigdor Lieberman, another predecessor, claimed Netanyahu was “playing games of ego and pride” with the fate of the nation.

This was the same day the Israeli army confirmed it had downed an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Syria “using electronic means.”

Soon thereafter, Netanyahu and Gallant, “the ouster and the ousted,” in the words of the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, were seen together for the first time since the start of the crisis. Netanyahu, Israel’s most inscrutable political personality, wore opaque sunglasses, while Gallant stood by his side, squinting into the setting sun. They were probably both looking for the same mirage.

Tuesday, April 4: Overnight, Israel bombed Iranian targets in Syria for the fourth time in a week. It feels like Israel is journeying through the Bardo, the Buddhist state between death and rebirth.

Netanyahu undertook the most banal of his duties: raising a festive Passover toast with his top brass at the military headquarters in Tel Aviv. Gallant welcomed him, his voice soft and raspy. “Mr Prime Minister, we are very happy to welcome you to the Ministry of Defense. I think your visit here — always, but certainly in these circumstances —” Gallant paused, causing the hearts of the generals gathered around to skip a beat. Gallant swallowed and continued, “Certainly, in these circumstances, the period of Passover, which is loaded with operational activity, is very significant.”

And so Netanyahu lives to rule another day.

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