Citizens flocked to the streets nationwide for the eighth consecutive week.
By Erin Viner
In what has been the largest show of opposition against controversial legal reforms advanced by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the largest rally was held in Tel Aviv, while an estimated 30,000 participated in Haifa and thousands of others in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Beersheba and other cities.
Waving a sea of Israeli flags, marchers in Tel Aviv held up signs reading, “We Shall Override,” “They Shall Not Pass” and “No Constitution, No Democracy.”
Mass public protests erupted in early January – less than two months after Netanyahu’s ruling coalition took office – following announcement of sweeping “reform of governance” led by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee Head Simcha Rothman that will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.
Critics believe the proposals threaten the country’s democracy, saying the Court plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution. The plan, they maintain, will not only weaken the judiciary by eradicating democratic checks and balances, but will also foster corruption, endanger civil liberties, damage the national economy and and bring diplomatic isolation by jeopardizing ties with Western allies.
Warning that the nation is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” just “a moment away “ from a possibly “violent collision,” President Isaac Herzog has made repeated calls for the government and Opposition to agree on legal reforms and freeze legislation on the present plan. While the sides have voiced willingness to do so, the compromise talks have yet to be held due to disagreement over the terms.
The Knesset approved the so-called “override” bill submitted by Rothman in a preliminary reading last week, which would hand parliamentarians power to legislate nearly any law with a clause making the law entirely immune to judicial oversight. The government is also reportedly considering advancement of new legislation that would severely curb conditions mandating recusal of a serving prime minister.
Condemnation of the revision comes from Israelis across the political, legal, military and financial spectrums. The national currency depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar following the bill passed its first reading last Tuesday.
Several recent polls show that the majority of Israelis want the reforms slowed to allow for dialogue with critics – or shelved altogether.
Israel’s 37th government is an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions which assert they hold the mandate for sweeping change. Likud politicians have long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by leftist judges who they say encroach on areas outside their authority for political reasons. The government insists the changes are necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.
Accusing Opposition leaders of “intending to create anarchy in the State of Israel and to harm its economy in order to bring a sixth election,” Netanyahu tweeted just ahead of the Saturday protests, charging they remain “silent in the face of explicit calls by protest leaders for bloodshed, use of weapons, civil rebellion, assassinating the prime minister… they just cannot accept that they lost the election.” He went on to call for “responsible voices in the Opposition not to cooperate with this lawlessness” and instead to immediately enter “serious dialogue for the good of the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel.”
Responding on Twitter, Opposition leader Yair Lapid told Netanyahu that “the time has come to end your lies.”
“As all the important economists in the country and the world have explained, you’re the one who is destroying the economy, you are the one who is dividing the nation, you are the one inciting to violence,” pledging, “We will not allow you to destroy the Israeli democracy and we have no intention to be quiet in the face of your poisonous incitement.
“A quarter of a million Israelis all over the country are fighting for the soul of the country,” stressed the former Premier on his social media accounts.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who addressed the Tel Aviv rally, condemned the judicial reform as “an assassination of the Declaration of Independence, which will turn Israel into a dictatorship.” Describing the current domestic turmoil as “the worst crisis since the formation of the state” and a “coup d’état,” Barak called the demonstrations as “a struggle for everthing that is precious and holy to us.”
Rejecting Netanyahu’s concession to hold compromise talks, the former Israeli leader stated, “When there is a gun at your head, first it must be removed. Only when the legislation is canceled will it be possible to consider dialogue.” He then vowed that “If these dictatorship laws come to fruition, we will have to walk the path of nonviolent civil disobedience.”
Also speaking in Tel Aviv, ex-Israel Police Chief Roni Alsheikh stated, “Judaism called for the restraint of power and the separation of powers a long time before political science. A Jewish public figure should say ‘I have come to serve’ – unfortunately, all we hear is, ‘We have come to govern, we have come to rule.’ The slogan ‘governance’ has become the supreme value, apparently even overriding the Ten Commandments. No, there is no Jewish value in this.”
In nearby Herzliya, an enormous copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was draped over the municipality.
Former Defense Minister and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz attended the rally in Haifa, where he advised Netanyahu, “You need to beat the enemies of the state and not the citizens of the country.”
Posting a photograph of the enormous nationwide demonstrations, the Blue and White political party leader cited Isaiah 1:15, “And when the Lord will answer him, he will multiply and spread.”
“We won’t get off the land, we will continue to serve it, we will keep fighting for it and make sure that it is what it says in the Declaration of Independence,” Lt. Gen. (Res.) Gantz said of those opposed to the government policies.
In Jerusalem, speakers included former Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who called for a delay in the reform bill to allow for substantive talks on the matter. He also warned that the planned change for the political selection of the judiciary would eliminate Court protection of IDF soldiers from allegations brought by international courts.
21 protesters were reportedly arrested for clashing with police during attempts to block Tel Aviv’s Ayalon Highway, where a small group lighted a bonfire. Two officers received medical care after being bitten by rioters, said a statement by the Israel Police.
Denouncing the “illegal rampage” as proof “this is a protest of anarchists,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called on police to show “zero tolerance.” He also demanded Opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to “immediately condemn the anarchic riot and incitement.”
Despite the mass public outcry and its own appeal for dialogue, the coalition intends to advance the legislation this week. Protest organizers have called for a nationwide “a day of struggle” on Wednesday.