15th week of mass demonstrations set for Saturday night

Protest leaders vow intensified civil disobedience if overhaul push restarts

‘Resistance will be stronger’ if government tries sneaking judicial appointments bill through Knesset, organizers vow, warning that attempts to lull opposition to sleep won’t work

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Tens of thousands of people protest against the government's judicial overhaul legislation during the Passover holiday in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2023. (Gitai Palti)
Tens of thousands of people protest against the government's judicial overhaul legislation during the Passover holiday in Tel Aviv, April 8, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

Leaders of the protest movement against the government’s judicial overhaul have threatened to deploy new forms of civil disobedience if lawmakers move to swiftly advance the legislation, highlighting rampant doubts around talks to reach compromise on the sweeping reforms.

Organizers have continued to express heavy skepticism toward the negotiations between Yesh Atid and National Unity on one side and the ruling coalition on the other, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog. They allege the talks are a ruse to quell the protest movement and advance the legislation quietly.

While large-scale rallies against the legislation have taken a breather over the Passover holiday, activity is set to ramp up once again now that Passover has ended, protest leaders say, with mass demonstrations around the country scheduled for a 15th successive Saturday night.

Smaller demonstrations at the homes of key politicians from both the coalition and opposition, including National Unity leader Benny Gantz, are being arranged for Friday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in late March to call a timeout on advancing legislation that would give the government almost complete control over almost all judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and other courts, along with other parts of the judicial package. The month-long suspension was announced after weeks of intensifying protests had brought the country practically to a standstill.

Opponents worry that the judicial appointments bill, which had advanced to its last two Knesset votes before the freeze was announced, could go before the Knesset plenum for final approval at a moment’s notice once the Knesset returns from its Passover recess at the end of the month.

Proponents of the government’s overhaul plans say reforms are needed to rein in politically motivated judicial activism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the nation, March 27, 2023. (GPO Screenshot)

Ziv Keinan, one of the founding members of the Kumi Israel (Arise Israel) organization, claimed Thursday that lawmakers had used the freeze to plot how to advance the legislation rather than negotiate it being watered down, meaning protesters would be needed “on the ground” to “deliver the message that we won’t allow our democracy to be turned into a dictatorship.”

“People will fight in the streets for democracy at any price,” said Keinan, whose group has been a key organizer in the anti-government demonstrations.  “We have a massive arsenal of tools [for civil disobedience] with which we intend to intensify the protest if necessary.”

Keinan would not detail the new types of civil disobedience, but said that “What has been seen until now is the tip of the iceberg.”

One of the major forms of non-violent civil disobedience used so far has been to block major highways and junctions around the country, causing severe traffic jams and leading to confrontations with the police who have used water cannons and stun grenades to disperse protestors.

Police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a highway during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Oren Ziv)

Josh Drill, the international spokesperson for what is called the Umbrella Movement of National Protests against Dictatorship in Israel, said similarly that the protests and “resistance” will intensify if the coalition tries to carry out a legislative end-run for its judicial overhaul program.

“If [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu tries again [to pass the legislation] we are more prepared and more organized, and the resistance will be stronger,” said Drill.

Like Keinan, Drill would not say what form such acts of civil disobedience would take, although insisted they would not be violent. He said however that should the overhaul legislation be passed there would be “a rebellion in Israel” and that “the country won’t function and Netanyahu would not have a country to manage.”

“We said there will be resistance activities, which we’re not divulging at the moment, in the week in March in which it was planned to pass the legislation. We have other acts of civil disobedience – what we’ve seen until now and more,” he added.

“The second the government makes a move to unilaterally advance the judicial coup, including statements by government ministers to that effect, that will be the signal for the protests to intensify.”

Drill dismissed the negotiations between the coalition and opposition as “an act of theater” being orchestrated by Netanyahu, and designed to drain the protest movement of its energy and “put it to sleep,” in order to pass the sweeping reforms before the movement can reorganize after the pause.

Leader of the National Unity Party MK Benny Gantz speaks to the media at the Knesset, March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Protest leaders have sought to keep weekly demonstrations in Tel Aviv and elsewhere active so they don’t lose impetus, in order to prevent any kind of torpor from setting in, Drill explained.

“Without the weekly protests the citizens and media will forget [about the overhaul], so it is crucial the protests continue,” he said.

Drill pointed to the spontaneous protests organized after Netanyahu said he was firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on March 26 as proof of how quickly and efficiently protestors could be mobilized by the now-extremely well-organized movement.

He said a network of WhatsApp and Telegram groups have been used to get the masses onto the streets, and that these tools would be deployed again if efforts to pass the judicial overhaul legislation appeared imminent.

Shy Engelberg, a prominent figure among protesting tech workers, expressed similar skepticism to the possibility that any kind of agreement can be reached with the Netanyahu-led coalition which would not harm democratic values.

Workers from the high-tech sector protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Tel Aviv, on February 7, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“People who want to create dictatorships don’t back down,” said Engelberg.

“I don’t think this government can last without these reforms because of all the extremists in the coalition and because this is what the extremists want in order to get more power.”

Both Engelberg and Drill were extremely reluctant to say what a potential acceptable compromise agreement might look like.

On Friday, several protests are scheduled to be held outside the homes of politicians from the coalition and opposition deemed by the protest movement to be critical in stopping the legislation.

One demonstration will be held outside Gantz’s home in Rosh Ha’ayin, with social media invitations to the event declaring that the former defense minister “has no mandate to compromise on democracy” and telling him not to be “the weak link.”

Other protests will be held outside the home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana as well as six cabinet ministers, including Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, and Diaspora Affairs and Social Equality Minister Amichai Chikli.

And a major demonstration will be held for the fifteenth week in a row on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, along with other protests at 150 locations around the country.

Speakers at the demonstration in Tel Aviv will include prominent protest leader Shikma Bressler, as well as former chief of staff of the IDF Dan Halutz.

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