image Photo: Flash90

Pro-gov’t supporters protest

Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem in a show of support for the controversial judicial overhaul plan by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Erin Viner

Local media estimated that the event, that organizers had dubbed “The One Million March,” drew about 80,000 people. It was sponsored by the Premier’s conservative Likud Party and its far-right coalition ally Otzma Yehudit faction.

Among many who chanted “the people want judicial reform” was Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who spearheaded the push of the overhaul.

Levin introduced the sweeping “reform of governance”  on 4 January – just days after Netanyahu’s new coalition was sworn into office – to limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves and Knesset laws while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench. At the time, Levin said he had been been working on the initiative for two decades, to ‘restore power to elected officials’ away from those he and his supporters consider to be overly-interventionist and left-wing judges; thus enabling the government to surpass rulings by the Supreme Court, gain control over judicial appointments and forego previous mandates to consult legal advisers appointed by the nation’s attorney general.

The nation has been gripped by unprecedented nationwide demonstrations against the deeply divisive plan over the past 16 weeks since its unveiling.

Minister Levin nevertheless told yesterday’s demonstrators that “more and more people understand the need for the legislation,” adding, “We are in an unusual situation in Israel in recent months that, in my opinion, the country has not experienced before. There is an atmosphere here where people are trying to paint a picture as if the elected government does not really represent the people, and today we are protesting to show that it does.”

The court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution, and that the government’s overhaul would weaken a system of judicial checks and balances, endanger civil liberties and harm the economy.

The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from the nation’s citizens, Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society amounting to what has been described as Israel’s worst-ever crisis.

Many critics allege the judicial reform is a ‘power grab’ that would concentrate authority in the hands of the prime minister and his extremist allies. They also say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest in trying to reshape the nation’s legal system at a time when he is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election, when his Likud party and several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions captured a majority of 64 seats in the 120-member Knesset. They formed Israel’s subsequent 37th government, one of the most right-wing in the nation’s history. Netanyahu has ardently defended the judicial overhaul as the ‘will of the people.’

Despite a ’temporary pause on advancing the legislation late last month to allow for compromise negotiations, anti-reform protests have persisted, disrupting this week’s national observance of Memorial and Independence Days.

Yesterday’s pro-grovernment rally marked a rare show of public support of the judicial revision, where many called out, “We don’t want compromise.” Others were filmed stomping on facial images placed on the ground of Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices, as well as the former attorney general.

“The elections will not be stolen from us” proclaimed a banner prominently placed on the stage from which several politicians spoke.

Vowing “we will not give up,” Ultranationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich promised the demonstrators that the judicial overhaul will be passed by the Knesset. The Religious Zionism Party (RZP) leader went on to assert, “We have the people, they have the media,” he said, referring to his earlier accusations that news agencies have been unduly influenced by the plan’s opponents.

Knesset Constitution, Justice and Law Committee Head (RZP MK) Simcha Rothman, who has been pushing the legislation, called the reform a ‘true act of democracy.’

Lauding those who demonstrated their backing, Netanyahu tweeted in English, “I thank the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who came to Jerusalem tonight to support our government. Your passion and patriotism moves me deeply.”

In a separate Twitter post written in Hebrew, Netanyahu added his thanks to “the national camp that came to Jerusalem this evening en masse,” whom he referred to as “first-class citizens!” by awarding his government the “64 mandates that brought victory.” He concluded by writing, “You warmed my heart very much and I thank each and every one of you,” posted alongside an Israeli flag and heart emoji.