Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is heading to the United States – with plans to meet President Biden at the UN General Assembly this week, as his country faces perhaps its worst domestic crisis ever. And it's not about the Palestinian conflict: it's about Israelis fighting Israelis.
Massive numbers have poured into the streets to protest the Netanyahu Coalition, Israel's most far-right government ever, and its move to weaken the court system. The judicial overhaul is seen as so radical, President Biden has urged Netanyahu to walk away from this; telling him on the phone to uphold our quote "shared democratic values."
This is what up to 200,000 Israelis across the country have done every Saturday night for over eight months. This packed protest is in Tel Aviv.
Some nights have turned violent – with police clashes, counter-protests and cars ramming into the crowds. It can feel like the country is unraveling.
The protests were triggered by the government's judicial initiative to sap the Supreme Court of much of its power. A wide majority of the country sees weakening the court as a power grab, since it is the only check in Israel on the government.
People who had never demonstrated in their lives, have poured into the streets – like Eyal Naveh. He leads a group of tens of thousands of military reservists, who are at the forefront of this democracy movement. They call themselves "Brothers and Sisters in Arms" – as it says on their t-shirts. They're pilots, fighters, intelligence officers, some are war heroes, many still go on dangerous missions.
Ron Scherf: And now, the danger is from inside.
Lesley Stahl: More than the enemies from without-
Ron Scherf: Now, yes. Much more. This is an existential threat to Israel.
We spoke to three of them – Shira Eting
Shira Eting: I was a combat helicopter pilot.
Ron Scherf -
Ron Scherf: Commander in the special forces.
And Omri Ronen -
Omri Ronen: I'm a former officer in an elite commando unit.
Ron Scherf: When a regime, a government wants to gain unlimited power, people are afraid. And the people in the streets today are afraid that the government is going to gain unlimited power without judicial review.
They all served under Netanyahu's past governments without hesitation but fear this one: a coalition of settler extremists and the ultra-Orthodox.
The head of national security has had multiple convictions, including supporting terrorism against Arabs. The finance minister is a self-described fascist homophobe. As for Netanyahu – he's in the midst of three separate trials on charges of corruption.
The protestors say that laws his government has introduced – over 200 of them – would not only weaken the courts, but control the press and diminish individual rights, and that this is how democracies like Hungary became autocratic.
Omri Ronen: What happened in Hungary and Poland will not happen here.
Lesley Stahl: There is a trend and it's going against you around the world
Omri Ronen: Yeah.
Shira Eting: We'll be the first to stop it.
Lesley Stahl: (laughs) You're all determined.
Omri Ronen: We are not joking. We are really--
Ron Scherf: Serious.
Omri Ronen: --trying to stop it. And we will succeed.
One of their big worries is that without a strong Supreme Court, the ultra-Orthodox bloc in the government could turn Israel into a theocracy, where biblical laws prevail.
Omri Ronen: Our Supreme Court is our last line of defense. And this is our last safeguard. We need them empowered. We need them independent. That's what we fight for.
Lesley Stahl: What is at stake for women, Shira?
Shira Eting: That we'll all be sitting in the back of the bus.
Lesley Stahl: Literally?
Shira Eting: --literally.
Lesley Stahl: Are you married?
Shira Eting: I'm married… to a woman-- a doctor. We have a daughter, she's one year and eight months.
Her fear of an assault on women's and gay rights is well-founded: a government member said the gay community is "more dangerous than ISIS and Hezbollah."
Another major complaint is that the ultra-Orthodox hardly pay any taxes and don't have to serve in the military, which is compulsory for all other Jewish Israelis. The Supreme Court ruled that that is not fair. But defying the court, the Orthodox plan to pass a law in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, that would turn their unofficial military exemption into an ironclad law.
Eyal Naveh: They want a law that they will not go to the Army. My 15-years-old, in three years he will go to the army. I'm gonna not sleep, like, three years. And the other father, the ultra-Orthodox father, will sleep all the time.
Eyal Naveh, father of six, is so passionate about this, he's working at Brothers and Sisters in Arms round the clock. He and Ron served together in Israel's most famous commando unit, like the Green Berets, called Sayeret Matkal.
They're using their military skills to lead a campaign of civil disobedience and harassment, including at the homes of Knesset members to pressure them to vote down the judicial overhaul.
Shira Eting: You want to make those elected officials understand that what they're doing is wrong. You want to wake up and shake up people. And you don't do that by being nice.
That means forming human chains in front of the Defense Ministry… they block major traffic arteries. Their barricade of the Knesset brought out police water cannons. members, including Ron, have been arrested and interrogated.
Here they're surrounding the car of Justice Minister and Vice Prime Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the controversial judicial overhaul. They wreak havoc outside his home by burning tires and disturbing his neighbors. He says he respects their right to protest, but to remember his government won the election.
Yariv Levin: No democracy can accept a situation that the government, the elected government that has a majority in the parliament, won't be able to pass any bill and to do anything because there are protests, because there are some people that are against it.
Lesley Stahl: You say that the people who fear that there won't be equal rights for everybody are completely mistaken and their charges are baseless. However, you are part of the most right-wing government that Israel has ever had.
Yariv Levin: And I'm proud to be part of that government, and I think that's what Israelis wanted to see.
Lesley Stahl: But you have people in your Cabinet who have made openly racist and homophobic statements, and they're ministers.
Yariv Levin: I can assure you that the vast majority of the members of parliament that support this government stand firmly behind democratic and liberal principles.
Lesley Stahl: But under your rules, if they all pass, this-- the government could overrule the court. Am I wrong?
Yariv Levin: This is not my-- what I'm offering. The situation in Israel is that the Supreme court is above the government, is above the parliament, is even above the will of the people. What I want to do is to balance it.
He says the court is an elite bastion that too often overrules lawmakers chosen by the people. The fight over the court has brought the country to a cold civil war. In July, the first step of Levin's judicial overhaul passed, severely limiting the court's power to strike down government decisions. Some 10,000 military reservists were so upset, they pledged to stop showing up for duty. Some of Netanyahu's allies suggested they should be tried, even executed.
Shira Eting: If you want pilots to be able to fly and shoot bombs and missiles into houses knowing they might be killing children, they must have the strongest confidence in the people making those decisions.
Ron Scherf: In the moral values of them.
Shira Eting: Exactly.
When they made their decision, many Brothers and Sisters in Arms came to tears.
Eyal Naveh: It was the hardest things to do. When you are in your DNA a soldier, this is what I do, 25 years, it's in my blood. It's like to cut a hand.
Lesley Stahl: Do you know what they say about you, your group, that you're unpatriotic and that you're traitors.
Eyal Naveh: They can say whatever they want. I am a patriot. Every year I go to reserve and serve. I leave the house, I leave my children, I leave my wife, I leave everyone to serve. My friends died for this country.
The military has warned that losing so many pilots, and high-ranking reservists could jeopardize readiness and hurt national security. But several former heads of the military and Mossad support the protest and blame the government for allowing the situation to come to this.
Lesley Stahl: If you did find out that Israel was at risk because of so many reservists leaving, would you step back and withdraw your proposals?
Yariv Levin: What's the price of democracy? What are you suggesting me to do? We'll tell the Israel citizens, "Okay, don't go to vote. There's no need to hold elections." We'll come to those ex-militarists and will ask them what we are allowed to do or not.
One issue rarely mentioned by the Brothers and Sisters in Arms is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
Lesley Stahl: If you don't include Palestinian rights as part of what you're fighting for, then how can you say you're fighting for democracy?
Shira Eting: Many Israelis have different opinions on the Palestinian conflict. And it's a very dividing issue.
Lesley Stahl: So, your coalition would splinter? The protest coalition--
Shira Eting: The -- yeah, if you wanna be able to solve the occupation one day, and I think that everyone here does, the only way to stop it and to solve it is to make sure Israel remains a democracy.
This past week, the Supreme Court held a hearing to decide whether to revoke the first step of Levin's judicial package. If the court does, Netanyahu won't say whether he will comply. If he doesn't, it would lead to an unprecedented crisis, leaving it up to the military, the police and the citizens to decide whose orders to follow: the court's or the elected officials'. Brothers and Sisters in arms says it's red alert for Israel's future: with democracy at stake --
Lesley Stahl: But you know, in terms of democracy you can't forget this is a government that was voted in by the people of Israel. And that's democracy.
Shira Eting: Every democracy that turned into a dictatorship was elected in a democratic way. This is how democracies turn into dictatorships--
Ron Scherf: And it's not like you wake one day and you say, "Okay, now we're a dictatorship." Small, small things will change the face of Israel. People, you know, tend to say, "Wow, in my country this can happen? No, no. It's only these guys shouting." But it's happening.
Produced by Shachar Bar-On. Associate producer, Jinsol Jung. Broadcast associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by Michael Mongulla.
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