Tens of thousands of Israelis joined demonstrations for the third consecutive Saturday against judicial reform plans by the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By Erin Viner
An estimated 130,000 Israelis attended demonstrations at various locations across Israel.
The mass rallies erupted after announcement by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin of a sweeping “reform of governance” that will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench. The government, which took office this month, insists the changes are necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
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.
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. He has ardently defended the jucidicial overhaul, which is already being discussed by the Knesset Constitutional Committee.
The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
“What you see here today is a demonstration in support of the country. This is a demonstration for the country. People who love the country have come here today to defend its democracy, to defend its courts, to defend the idea of coexistence and of common good,” Opposition leader and former Premier MK Yair Lapid said at the protests, describing participants as “people here who love Israel, who came to demonstrate for a democratic Jewish state according to the values of the Declaration of Independence, and we will not give up until we win.”
Israeli Bar Association President Avi Chimi charged that the new coalition ministers “want to turn us into a dictatorship,” stressing that “they want to destroy judicial authority, without which there is no democratic country.”
Many among crowds waved blue and white Israeli flags. “I am a student, a law student, and once I heard about the reform in the legal system, I was shocked, I can’t believe that the changes they want to make,” said protestor Amit Melumad. will make such a difference in the democracy in Israel, it is basically a change in the regime, and we as students protest against it and want to save our democracy.” 64-year-old IDF military veteran Amnon Miller said, “We fought in this country in the army for 30 years for our freedom and we won’t let this government take our freedom.”
Former Defense Minister and centrist MK Benny Gantz called on the public to “take an Israeli flag in one hand, an umbrella in the other, and come out to protect democracy and law in the State of Israel,” at last week’s demonstration in Tel Aviv.
A public opinion poll published last week by the Israel Democracy Institute revealed that trust in the Supreme Court is markedly higher among left-wing Israelis than among those on the right, but that there is still no overall support for weakening the court’s powers.