Tens of thousands of protesters against the government’s contentious plan to overhaul the justice system gathered on Saturday evening for the 23rd week in a row, days ahead of a crucial Knesset vote on the makeup of the key Judicial Selection Committee.
“We face a clear and imminent danger. If the government carries out a hostile takeover of the Judicial Selection Committee, it will be surprised at the magnitude and intensity of the national protests. Only a determined and uncompromising struggle will prevent the government from advancing a dictatorial regime,” protest organizers said in a statement ahead of the nationwide rallies.
“It is clear to all that the government is headed toward a regime change that will destroy the army, the economy and our society. Against this plot, hundreds of thousands will again rise up this week to protest with all their might against the destruction of the State of Israel,” they said.
On Wednesday, the Knesset will vote to appoint two lawmakers to the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee.
The coalition has threatened to snatch both of those spots on the panel, breaking with tradition. Opposition leaders have said that if the coalition does so, it will signal the end of the compromise talks under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.
The makeup of the judicial selection panel is central to the coalition’s ongoing efforts to greatly increase political control over the judiciary. A key bill in the overhaul plan would reshape the committee and hand the government an automatic majority, giving it the power to determine most judicial appointments.
That 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 opposition, the likes of which was last seen before the legislation was frozen.
Rallies were be held Saturday at over 150 locations across the country.
The main event at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street began with a march from the city’s Dizengoff Square at 7 p.m. The rally was set for 8 p.m and will include speeches from the founder and CEO of Papaya Global Einat Guez, key figure in the reservists’ protest, Eyal Naveh, and protest leader Shikma Bressler.
Bressler, a research physicist and co-founder of the Black Flags protest movement, said Friday that the demonstrations would continue for as long as the overhaul legislation remained viable.
“Nothing has changed. The legislation is still on the table, with a loaded gun. It is true that the government says they want compromise, but within a few hours they can enact a law to change the composition of the committee for the selection of judges,” Bressler told the Walla news site.
“You have to listen to the members of the coalition — they are saying one after the other that they will continue with the legislation if there is not an agreement,” she said.
“Experience shows that we can’t trust anything. We have realized that we are the barrier between a democratic and a dictatorial Israel, and that’s why we are on the streets,” she said.
Saturday’s demonstrations come after multiple coalition lawmakers were met with protests during their visits to the United States over the past few days, causing many of them to cancel appearances and speeches.
Meanwhile, the weekly protests saw slightly increased turnout last week, with the rallies boosted by renewed anger at police over a forceful crackdown and arrests at a protest near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s private residence in Caesarea, and at key overhaul architect, far-right Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, for snatching a megaphone from a protester following him during a visit to New York.
Various Hebrew media outlets estimated that between 95,000 and 140,000 people attended the main rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, alongside thousands of others in some 150 locations around the country. After the scheduled speeches were over, hundreds headed to the Ayalon Highway and briefly blocked the city’s main thoroughfare in both directions, with some lighting flares on the road.
The judicial overhaul legislation has been frozen since late March, when Netanyahu said he would halt the plans to allow for talks with the opposition under the auspices of Herzog, aimed at finding a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform.
But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.
Netanyahu said last month, following the passage of the state budget, that “of course” the overhaul was now back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, however, he added: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”
Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, eroding Israel’s democratic character and leaving minorities unprotected. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.
Michael Bachner and Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.