Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in three major cities on Saturday to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform plans.
By Erin Viner
Israeli police estimated that 80,000 people participated in demonstrations in Tel Aviv, with thousands of others at more protests in Jerusalem and Haifa.
The rallies come in the wake of a similar mass protest last week, following 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.
While proponents of the changes say they will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary, critics believe the proposals threaten the country’s democracy.
The Knesset Constitutional Committee has already begun discussing the plan, which is fully backed by Prime Minister Netanyahu.
“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,” said centrist former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who attended the Tel Aviv rally on Saturday along with several other opposition politicians.
Protester Assaf Steinberg accused the newly-sworn in government of “trying to destroy democratic structure of the Israeli state. They are working against the article of independence, that is the bases of the Israeli democracy and trying with their draconic rules to destroy what [Israeli founding Premier David] Ben Gurion has started here, and this can be the start of the end of the Jewish state as we know it.”
Also in the coastal city, demonstrator Jacoub Yosha accused the current coalition of trying to implement changes “to make us like dark regime in the world. We will not accept it and we will fight for this democracy.”
In front of the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, protester Gil Librwski insisted, “We need a strong independence justice system and the new government trying to erase it,” while fellow citizen Baruch Feldstern expressed concern that “the so-called reform that they are trying to pass is undermining checks and balances in the Israeli democracy.”
Chief Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut charged last Thursday that if implemented as outlined by Justice Minister Levin, the reform would compromise judiciary independence. “If the plan is realized, (Israel’s upcoming) 75th anniversary will be remembered as the year the country’s democratic integrity suffered a mortal blow,” she said.
Saying he wanted to comment “on something that is making headlines” during his weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu maintained that he has long been clear about the planned changes to rein in the Supreme Court, in he has described as a restoration of the balance of the three branches of government.
“Here is a quote, one of many, from me and my colleagues during the election campaign: ‘We will make the necessary changes in the judicial system, prudently and responsibly. We are going to change the system, to save it and not destroy it.’ My colleagues and I, most of whom are here around this table said this countless times, and millions of citizens voted for the right-wing. They knew about the intention to enact a comprehensive reform of the judicial system. What’s more, they demanded it from us. Everyone who was at our election rallies, in city centers and in neighborhoods, heard the voices rising from the crowds. There are also many who did not vote for us who knew and agreed that it was necessary to make fundamental changes in the judicial system.”
Netanyahu, now in his sixth term, insisted that, “the truth of the matter is what we are seeking to do will restore the balance between the authorities that existed in Israel for 50 years, and which is maintained today in all western democracies,” adding, “therefore, there needs to be a substantive, in-depth and serious dialogue in the [Ministerial] Committee on Legislation and in the Knesset, Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. We cannot be swept away by inflammatory slogans about civil war and the destruction of the state.”
Expressing conviction that following such a discourse, the 73-year-old leader vowed, “we will complete the reform legislation in a way that will correct what is necessary, will fully protect individual rights and restore public confidence in the judicial system, which needs this reform so much.”
S&P Global Ratings director Maxim Rybnikovhas warned that the revisions could affect Israel’s credit rating. When asked by reporters if he is willing to risk Israel’s credit rating in exchange for pushing through the judicial overhaul, Netanyahu insisted that the reforms would strengthen democracy and the country’s economic policies.