Demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul were set to enter their 21st week on Saturday night, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the plan would now return to the legislative agenda after the passage of the contentious state budget.
Protest organizers said Saturday’s rallies would be held in Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Jerusalem, Haifa and around 150 other locations around the country “after Netanyahu himself admitted we are facing a dictatorship.”
“Now it is clear to everyone that the discussions at the President’s House were a ploy by Netanyahu to buy time and bribe his partners,” protest organizers said, referring to compromise talks and the national budget passed Wednesday.
“The State of Israel is one vote away from becoming a dictatorship. Only one thing stopped Netanyahu in the first round — the protests of millions. And it will stop him again,” organizers said.
The centerpiece of the overhaul is legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments in Israel, by giving the coalition an in-built majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.
The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice.
However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public unrest, the likes of which was last seen before the legislation was frozen in late March.
Saturday’s protest in Tel Aviv will begin at 7 p.m. with a march from Ha’Bima Square to Kaplan Street for the main rally.
Speakers at the event will include former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, protest leader Shikma Bressler and Shay Bramson of Havruta, an organization that works with religiously-observant members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Speeches will begin after 8:30 p.m. to allow Shabbat observers to participate.
Meanwhile, protest leaders on Friday called on New York City’s Celebrate Israel Parade, set to take place June 4, to cancel the participation of Israeli government ministers.
Hours earlier, hundreds of protesters gathered near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence to highlight the apparently faltering relationship with the US.
Demonstrators waved Israeli and US flags while charging that Netanyahu is distancing the country’s top ally even as arch-foe Iran rushes to obtain nuclear weapons.
Unusually, Washington has yet to invite Netanyahu for an official visit since he formed his coalition of right-wing, religious and far-right parties at the end of last year. The US has raised concerns over comments by far-right elements of the government and over the coalition’s planned overhaul of the judiciary.
Minor scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators.
The Israel Police said it had pushed back the several hundred protesters after they came within the buffer zone around the residence on the capital’s Gaza Street and ignored instructions to clear the road. Two protesters were detained and taken for questioning.
While the demonstrators have so far focused on opposing the government’s planned overhaul, they have also turned attention in recent weeks to the huge allocations of money given to coalition parties as part of the latest budget.
Thousands rallied in Jerusalem on Tuesday as the Knesset convened to vote on the budget, with protesters accusing the government of “looting” the state’s money in an attempt to keep his coalition together.
Anti-government protesters have gathered in across the country every Saturday night for the past 21 weeks since the government announced its plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Compromise talks between the coalition and opposition have been taking place at President Isaac Herzog’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Last week, a key architect of the plan said the coalition will go back to advancing bills in the package during the current Knesset term, even if no agreements are reached in the compromise talks.
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, told Channel 12 that one such law could be a highly divisive bill to grant coalition politicians almost exclusive control over appointing judges. The bill has already cleared all the legislative hurdles other than its final votes in the Knesset.
Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.
According to an unsourced Wednesday report, Netanyahu will pursue shakeups of the State Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office if his coalition’s negotiations with the opposition on judicial reform fall apart.
Meanwhile, the government is reportedly weighing its approach to a proposed law that would significantly limit Israeli civil society groups’ ability to accept donations from foreign governments, after numerous allies including the US, Germany and France voiced opposition to the bill.
The Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office have received protests against the bill from key allies, and Netanyahu is personally involved in the response, a senior diplomatic official told Channel 13.
The legislation, drafted by a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, is set to be brought before the Knesset’s high-level Ministerial Committee for Legislation on Sunday, but officials are considering postponing the bill in light of the objections, the report said.
The bill states that any nonprofit group that engages in public advocacy two years before or after receiving a donation from a foreign government will lose its status as a public institution and will no longer be eligible for tax exemptions. In addition, those non-profits will be hit with a 65-percent income tax.
It is viewed as targeting left-wing groups that are considered adversaries by Netanyahu’s right-wing government.
The New Israel Fund, which serves as an umbrella group funding dozens of progressive civil society organizations operating in Israel and the West Bank, came out harshly against the bill, calling it the “next step” of the government’s effort to overhaul the judiciary.
“Netanyahu and his government of extremists want to tax civil society out of existence — especially those working to defend the rights of the most marginalized in Israel and under Israel’s control: women, the LGBTQ+ community, Palestinians living under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel,” said NIF CEO Daniel Sokatch in a statement Wednesday.
“This is precisely the way that autocrats shrink democratic space. This law could force the closure of hundreds of organizations in Israel — and it specifically targets the ones that speak truth to power. Choking off funding from advocates for change is not what democracies do,” he said.