Amid mass protests, government set to keep advancing legal overhaul at full steam

Knesset panel to discuss bills letting MKs shield legislation from review, limit option of recusing PM; next plenum votes expected Wednesday, when protesters plan ‘day of struggle’

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman leads a committee hearing, February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman leads a committee hearing, February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After hundreds of thousands of people protested Saturday evening against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, the coalition was nevertheless expected to continue advancing the radical reform package at full speed Sunday, with the next plenum votes on pieces of legislation set for Wednesday, although the schedule could yet change.

Since being sworn in less than two months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition has prioritized the controversial proposals to transform the justice system, which are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Rothman was planning to bring the so-called “override” bill, which passed a preliminary reading last week, for discussion in his committee on Sunday morning, Hebrew media reported.

According to Rothman’s bill, passed as Basic Law: Override, the Knesset could legislate nearly any law with a clause making the law entirely immune to judicial oversight. Laws that are not made immune will require a unanimous decision by all 15 High Court justices to be struck down.

The bill passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset last week, and is expected to be prepared in the committee for its first reading in little over a week, Channel 13 news reported.

The network said a second version of the law will also be discussed, in which the High Court would be unable to strike down laws altogether, but would be able to publish a non-binding declaration that it contradicts one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, sending it back to Knesset review.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left), Justice Minister Yariv Levin (center) and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, in the Knesset on February 22, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition is also reportedly planning this coming week to advance legislation that would radically limit the circumstances in which the recusal of a serving prime minister can be ordered. The preliminary vote on that bill is expected on Wednesday.

Wednesday is also planned to be the next day of nationwide protests, with organizers saying it will be “a day of struggle” around the country. They have not yet announced their plans, but are expected to lead various acts of disruption throughout the country, whether by blocking roads or other means.

The coalition’s plans to severely weaken the judiciary have sparked mass protests and warnings of the potential for extensive economic and social harm from top public figures including jurists, economists, business leaders, high-tech entrepreneurs and reservists from top military units.

On Saturday, masses of Israelis took part in protests against the government plans, with estimates pointing to 130,000-160,000 in Tel Aviv and tens of thousands more around the country. Organizers claimed that some 300,000 took part in rallies around the country, making the latest demonstrations the largest ones yet.

An aerial drone shot of anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv on February 25, 2023. (social media)

As the main rally in Tel Aviv ended, hundreds of protesters marched down to the Ayalon Highway, clashing with cops who tried — unsuccessfully — to prevent them from blocking the major thoroughfare. Some demonstrators set tires and wooden planks alight on the road, which was blocked for several hours.

Police said 21 protesters had been arrested. Cops also opened an investigation into one protester seen writing graffiti on the highway calling Netanyahu a “traitor.” A few police officers were hurt by violent demonstrators, the force stated, including two who were bitten by rioters.

Netanyahu said the protesters were trying “to create anarchy” and force another election.

The sweeping reforms, which have been fast-tracked through the Knesset in recent weeks, include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges to the High Court, all but eliminating the court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

Top economic figures have repeatedly warned the overhaul will cause severe damage to the economy. After the Knesset passed initial votes on the legislation on Tuesday, marking the first significant steps in its divisive effort, the shekel depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar and Tel Aviv shares declined.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed the predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Several recent polls have indicated the overhaul plans are broadly unpopular with the public.

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