Hundreds of thousands packed city streets nationwide on Saturday in another mass display against the controversial judicial reform plan by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
By Erin Viner
Describing deepening divisions in Israel as “the biggest crisis in the history,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told a crowd of thousands in Ashdod that those who love the nation are trying to save it “from those who seek its soul.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog has warned that the nation is on the brink of civil war. As he unveiled his People’s Directive proposal aimed at reaching compromise – immediately rejected by the government, the Israeli President told the Knesset this past week, “I am going to use a term that I have never used before, a term that horrifies every Israeli who hears it. Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach—has no idea what he is talking about.”
Israel’s right-wing 37th government, an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions, asserts it holds the mandate for changes, deemed necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
Opposition Leader Benny Gantz accused the government of “trickery” by claiming to be open for compromise talks while rejecting Herzog’s proposal.
“The situation could deteriorate into a fight between brothers, he warned while addressing protests in Herzliya, vowing, “We refuse to be enemies and we are not ready to give power to any politician who will divide us.”
Thousands of others marched in nearby Tel Aviv, among whom were those wearing costumes shown in “The Handmaid’s Tale” television series – that depicts a puritanical regime that has stripped women of rights. The activists previously participated in other protests, including in front of the Knesset.
“I came with my friends here to Tel Aviv, to demonstrate against what is called reforms,” Ronen Shaike, 47, told Reuters at a demonstration in the city, saying he wanted to defend the country’s democracy, which he accused the government of seeking to destroy.
“I’m here to demonstrate with the people of Israel, against the revolution, against the changing of our state,” said Dalia Yosef, 72.
“I know that are aware of the enormous risk that the reform – or what you call a reform – poses to all your years in office,” said former Bank of Israel Governor Jacob Frenkel at the Tel Aviv demonstration in remarks directed at Prime Minister Netanyahu, who had appointed him to office.
Frankel as Finance Minister during his first term , who served as governor of the Bank of Israel from 1991 to 2000, addressed the crowd at the central Tel Aviv protest on Saturday. There, he warned that the judicial overhaul legislation will have serious economic consequences, and that “every citizen” will feel them. “What happened to the economy in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Turkey? Do we want to follow their path?” he asked, adding that the recently-elected government has “radically” destroyed “the Zionist enterprise” and that “consequences will be felt by every single citizen, who will be vulnerable to economic dangers.”
As the changes head toward ratification, the protests have escalated, affecting the economy – the shekel has slipped – and extending to a threat by some military reservists not to heed call-up orders.
IDF reservists, who have increasingly expressed dissent with the judicial overhaul, hung a banner from the top of the Dizengoff Center that read “The dictatorship is tearing the people apart.”
Calling the public protests “a second War of Independence,” former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz said in an address to 5000 people in Haifa that Netanyahu “will bear responsibility for damage to the economy, security, a ruined society and bloodshed.”
Protests even spread to the Judea and Samaria – where Israeli settlements have long been considered a political stronghold for Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners. More than 50 mostly modern-Orthodox Jewish protesters chanted traditional Jewish songs holding blue and white flags Israeli flags at a central junction in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
“What they are trying to do is monopolize, to have all the power in their hands,” Shmuel Wygoda, a college professor told Reuters in Efrat. “Once you have all the power in the hands of one side, it is a change, which we know from history, from totalitarian regimes, that all the power is unfortunately used against the people.”
This week’s demonstrators were met by right-wing counter protesters, including several incidents of violence.
A 24-year-old man was arrested in Givatayim after he dangerously drove a motorcycle between the protesters, while a man received medical care after he said he was deliberately injured by a car that attempted to run over demonstrators in Herzliya.
In Tel Aviv, 100 police officers were deployed to separate the sides, where right-wingers waved signs denouncing “Leftist traitors.” Video was filmed of the physical assault of a protestor by a masked individual; while members of the extremist Lehava group waved flags of the Kach movement – banned as a terrorist organization, as journalist Yuval Sade reported hearing shouts “We will slaughter you” against the anti-reformists.
Fireworks were shot at crowds in Kiryat Ono by a masked assailant, who escaped the scene.
During a first-time demonstration in Or Akiva, three people were arrested for hurling eggs at the protesters, who had to be rescued by police during ensuing clashes.
One man was arrested for throwing rocks in an earlier protest in the central village of Kfar Uriah, where controversial far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir was spending the Sabbath.
According to local media, others threw smoke grenades, shot firecrackers and sprayed a fire extinguisher at the anti-government protestors, while one man lowered his trousers to expose himself amid shouts that “stinking leftists should die.”
“Protest against me as much as you want,” Ben Gvir said on Twitter. “I will fight for your right to protest. But why gather outside the windows of the synagogue with loudspeakers, honk, scream and make people violate Shabbat?”
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who returned to office for a sixth term in late December, has said the demonstrations by leftist adversaries who refuse to accept the results of the 1 November’s election and are trying to oust him from power. He is on trial in three corruption cases on charges which he denies, and has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.
The reform is also sparking rising concern abroad.
The issue arose during Netanyahu’s conversation with US President Joe Biden on the security situation in Israel following a Palestinian terror attack against an Israeli-American couple yesterday.
A statement released from the Prime Minister’s Office said: “Regarding the judicial reform, Prime Minister Netanyahu told President Biden that Israel was, and will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy,” and that “Prime Minister Netanyahu thanked President Biden for his commitment to Israel’s security.”