Facing planned overhaul protests, Netanyahu cancels speech to US Jewish leaders

PM’s office denies intended demonstrations led to cancelation, as protest organizers fear announcement is a trick and vow to rally regardless at JFNA convention

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington DC on November 10, 2015. (Ron Sachs, JFNA)
File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the Jewish Federations General Assembly in Washington DC on November 10, 2015. (Ron Sachs, JFNA)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday canceled his scheduled evening appearance at a convention organized by the Jewish Federations of North America, amid plans by protesters against his government’s judicial overhaul to disrupt his arrival and speech at the event.

The Prime Minister’s Office said “scheduling considerations and preparations for Memorial Day and Independence Day ceremonies” prompted the cancelation, and not the planned protests.

Protest organizers said in a statement they suspected the cancelation announcement was a ruse and would not change their protest plans.

The JFNA umbrella group’s General Assembly, called “Israel at 75” and taking place from Sunday to Wednesday in Tel Aviv, is scheduled to include educational sessions, a ceremony marking Memorial Day and an Independence Day barbecue.

The JFNA said, without elaboration, that Netanyahu had “informed us that he is not able to appear.” It noted: “We thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for his message of friendship between our communities and his acknowledgment of the important role North American Jewry has played in building and developing the state of Israel.”

It added: “We look forward to hearing from President Isaac Herzog tonight and wish him continued luck in advancing a compromise agreement on judicial reforms that will be acceptable to the broad majority of Israelis and strengthen Israel’s democratic institutions.”

Mounting criticism has been leveled by Diaspora Jewry against the government on the overhaul plan. In a highly unusual move, JFNA, one of the largest and most prominent Jewish institutions in North America, in February slammed the government’s plan to legislate an “override clause” that would allow a bare 61-seat Knesset majority to overrule Supreme Court decisions.

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied Saturday evening for the 16th week in a row against the contentious proposals to shackle the judiciary. Societal tensions have mounted over the past week as bereaved families urged politicians to stay clear of cemeteries on Memorial Day, which begins Monday at nightfall and ends Tuesday evening with the start of Independence Day.

Demonstrators wave flags during a rally to protest the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on April 22, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“We’ve been spared an embarrassing and heartbreaking situation,” Anna Kislanski, the CEO of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, told the Times of Israel from the GA. “Netanyahu is responsible for the current deep rift in Israel-Diaspora relations. He shouldn’t have been invited to speak in the first place.”

Dror Morag, an official of the left-wing World Union of Meretz, said in a statement the prime minister “did well not to come today.”

“Netanyahu understands that his government changed the rules of the game, and if he doesn’t intend to declare actual steps to repair [Diaspora] relations, he has no reason to arrive and meet us. Not today and not in the future,” he said.

Protesters have dogged Netanyahu at many of his public appearances recently. A group of demonstrators awaited the prime minister when he arrived at the Tel Aviv District Court to give testimony in a claim against journalist Ben Caspit on Sunday morning. Hundreds were also waiting for him when he came to Rehovot on Wednesday, and hundreds rallied against him when he visited the Likud party headquarters on Thursday.

Amid concerns of disruptions during Memorial Day this coming Tuesday, leading opposition lawmakers Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz on Friday issued a rare joint call for unity along with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging Israelis to put aside deep divisions for a single day in honor of those killed.

A similar joint call was issued by Modiin Mayor Haim Bibas, who also chairs the Federation of Local Authorities, along with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai, and more than 115 other municipality heads across the country.

On Tuesday evening, the central national torch-lighting ceremony will be held as the country moves from mourning those killed in military service and terror attacks to celebrating 75 years of independence.

The usually apolitical ceremony has taken on a different tone this year amid the government’s plans to shackle the judiciary. Lapid has announced he would not attend the ceremony due to societal divisions he said the government has created due to its radical judicial overhaul program.

Lapid’s decision followed reports that Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who is responsible for the ceremony, plans to cut the live broadcast of the event and switch to a rehearsal recording should the actual torch-lighting ceremony be interrupted by anti-government protestors.

At the same time as the ceremony, a mass rally will be held at Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening.

Illustrative: People and soldiers visit graves during a Memorial Day which commemorates fallen Israeli soldiers and victims of terror at Nahalat Yitzhak military cemetery in Tel Aviv on May 4, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Meanwhile, supporters of the overhaul are set to rally on Thursday evening. Justice Minister Yariv Levin called on supporters to attend a large demonstration in Jerusalem “to stand between the Knesset building and the Supreme Court building and say with unprecedented force: the people demand legal reform. The mandate received by the right-wing government must be realized.”

The Knesset is scheduled to return from its month-long recess on April 30, with a law to put the appointment of judges within political control, one part of the legislative package, submitted for its final readings and potentially ready to be passed within days. Netanyahu suspended the legislation last month until the coming Knesset session, to allow talks with the opposition aimed at an agreed program of judicial, but said the overhaul will pass “one way or another.”

Critics say the overhaul, which will shift much of the judiciary’s power into the government’s hands, will make Israel a democracy in name only, shielding leaders from accountability while leaving minority rights largely unprotected and subject to the whims of Netanyahu’s hard-right government. Proponents say the changes are needed to rein in what they see as an overly activist court.

Canaan Lidor and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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