Nationwide Protest Day declared in Israel

Organizers called for a “Day of Disruption” in a display of opposition to the government’s judicial reforms.

By Erin Viner

Today’s nationwide demonstrations come in tandem as the Knesset further advanced the highly-contentious plan.

“Israel is not a dictatorship, Israel is not Hungary,” chanted the by flag-waving participants.

Mass public protests have been ongoing since early January – less than two months after Prime Minister Benjamin 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. The proposal will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing the coalition’s input over nominations to the bench.

The main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway was closed down earlier today after being obstructed by the protestors, who also barricaded entrances to train stations. Israeli police on horseback tried to stop demonstrators from breaching barricades, while some protesters were seen being dragged off the road while calling out “shame” and “we are the majority.” Local media reported that police fired stun grenades and used a water cannon to disperse demonstrators after scuffles erupted.

Several of the proposed reform clauses have already been approved by the Knesset in initial readings but have yet to be written into law. Today, the Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee approved the ‘override’ and the judiciary laws.

The so-called “override” bill submitted by Rothman in a preliminary reading last week would enable parliamentarians to legislate nearly any law, with a clause making the legislation entirely immune to judicial oversight.

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 and damage the national economy.

Several recent polls show that the majority of Israelis want the reforms slowed to allow for dialogue with critics – or shelved altogether. Condemnation of the revision comes from citizens across the political, legal, military and financial spectrums. Economists and legal experts have warned that it will wreak havoc on its economy.

Even though the plan has yet to be written into law, it has already affected the Israeli shekel, which depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar after the bill passed its first reading last Tuesday.

There is also concern the plan would risk diplomatic isolation by jeopardizing ties with Western allies. Germany, the United States and France have so far signaled concern about the democratic health of the country if the government goes through with the overhaul.

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.

The ruling coalition is also reportedly considering advancement of new legislation that would severely curb conditions mandating recusal of a serving premier.

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 outcome of the 1 November national election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has steadfastly maintained that the changes will restore balance between the branches of government and boost business.

In response to today’s demonstrations, Netanyahu issued a statement.  “We will not allow violence against police officers, the blocking of highways and the gross violation of the laws of the state. The right to demonstrate is not a right to anarchy,” he said, adding that he gives “full backing to National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Israel Police Inspector-General and the officers of the Israel Police, who are acting against lawbreakers who are disrupting Israeli citizens’ daily lives.”

Minister Ben-Gvir also issued a statement saying he would not allow a “mutiny” or “anarchists” to block roads.

Warning the country was on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse,” President Isaac Herzog has called for a delay in the passing of the law to provide time to formulate a compromise on the changes.

Demonstrations intensified throughout the day – culminating with marches and mass gatherings at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv.