image Photo: Flash90

Mass Israeli protests persist

100,000 citizens demonstrated for the fifth straight week against judicial reform plans by the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Erin Viner

The government insists its proposals are needed to curb overreach by judges, critics argue they threaten democratic checks on ministers by the courts.

Fierce opposition from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials and advocacy groups, and raised concerns among business leaders, have widened already deep political divisions in Israeli society.

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.

Despite the bitterly cold first major storm of the season, Israelis came out on Saturday to voice their dissention.

“I’m here tonight protesting against the transition of Israel from a democracy to an autocracy,” said 48-year-old software engineer Dov Levenglick at a Tel Aviv demonstration, adding, “It’s a disgrace, it shall not stand.”

Also speaking in Tel Aviv, Hadar Segal, 35, accused the government of wanting to “tear up the judiciary system of Israel, they want to tear up Israeli democracy, and we are here every week in every weather … to fight against it and to fight for Israeli democracy.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid joined demonstrations in the coastal city of Haifa, where he said protesters “came to save their country, and we came to protest with them.”

National Unity leader and former Defense Minister Lieutenant General (Res.) Benny Gantz, who has been calling on Israelis to take to the streets against the reforms, today threated that, “If the race to a coup d’etat continues, we will also use our right to strike – and masses of civilians will bring the country to a standstill.”

Amid mounting tensions between the newly elected government and its detractors there have been incidents of incitement and threats. Israel is particularly sensitive over such actions that led up to the 1995 assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Decorated IDF Colonel Ze’ev Raz (Ret.), a distinguished pilot who commanded Israel’s June 1981 Osirak nuclear reactor, wrote on Facebook Saturday, “If a sitting prime minister assumes dictatorial powers, this prime minister is bound to die, simply like that, along with his ministers and his followers.”

Following condemnation across the political spectrum and brief detainment Sunday morning by the Israel Police Lahav 433 Special Criminal Investigations Unit, Raz was later released and walked back his statement.

Prime Minister Netanyahu demanded that opposition leaders “to act to calm the spirits of the nation” and act to end the “wild incitement that is raging against me, against my family, against the ministers of the government and against leading members of parliament.”

“We know that it is possible to debate what really endangers democracy, but explicit calls for murder, for political murder, is not something that can be debated – it is a real danger to democracy that everyone should strongly oppose,” he underscored.

The Israel Security Agency (ISA, Shin Bet) and State Attorney’s Office issued rare statements stressing there will be no hesitation to authorize criminal investigations or prosecution of anyone who oversteps the bounds of legitimate freedom of speech.