Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated throughout the country Saturday against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, indicating that the massive protest movement remained strong even as the coalition has paused the legislation to allow dialogue on its highly divisive efforts to weaken the justice system.
With opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu highly distrustful of his overtures — and some coalition members vowing to soon pick up right where they left off — protesters are demanding that instead of pausing the legislation to weaken the courts and politicize judge selection, the coalition shelve the bills completely.
Media reports indicated at least 170,000 and up to some 200,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv, while tens of thousands more rallied in numerous cities across the country. Protest organizers claimed over 400,000 demonstrated nationwide, though such figures could not be corroborated.
“We will keep heading to the streets until we are promised the State of Israel will remain a democracy,” organizers said.
The main rally was held for the 13th straight weekend on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and Azrieli Junction, which were filled to the brim with demonstrators. Rallies were also held in some 150 locations across the country. Tens of thousands protested in Haifa.
Tel Aviv pic.twitter.com/WoPbAS0akO
— Noga Tarnopolsky נגה טרנופולסקי نوغا ترنوبولسكي (@NTarnopolsky) April 1, 2023
In a new development, many demonstrators at Saturday’s Tel Aviv protest waved American flags alongside Israeli ones, to voice their support for the US on a week that saw US President Joe Biden express his opposition to the Israeli government’s conduct, which led the right to lash out at Washington.
Protest leaders’ urgent messaging of the need to continue protesting in the days since Netanyahu announced a “delay” in legislating the radical judicial changes had implied they were fearful of a significant drop in attendance as the coalition put its plans on the back burner. But Saturday’s high turnout indicated the protest movement has grown resilient and will not be easily appeased.
Hundreds of protesters briefly blocked the Ayalon Highway at several points throughout the evening, before being removed by police. Nineteen demonstrators were arrested.
Footage showed a mounted policeman striking a female protester, apparently with a baton.
In response to the video, police claimed the woman struck the horse in the head with the sign she was holding, and the officer responded accordingly. No such action was seen in the video of the incident.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) April 1, 2023
Also in Tel Aviv, police arrested three people near Kaplan Street carrying pepper spray, a switch knife and brass knuckles. Police suspected the group were on their way to attack protesters.
At a rally in Jerusalem, world-renowned author David Grossman said the architects of the shakeup had “made the mistake of their lives” in awakening Israel’s liberals into action.
Invoking a famous quote from the Haggadah of this week’s Passover holiday, Grossman said: “Why is this night different from other nights?”
“We have changed, we the demonstrators, the protesters,” he said. “We ourselves did not imagine the extent of love hidden inside us for the life that we’ve been able to create here in Israel.”
Grossman said the mass demonstrations have come as a shock to the judicial overhaul’s instigators, who have made “the mistake of their lives.”
“They didn’t understand our determination to fight for the foundations of our being, or the feeling of solidarity that would suddenly beat within us once more, nor our novel and surprising refusal to meekly accept the image of the ’empty cart,'” he said — referring to a stereotypical view of secular Israelis by some in the religious community according to which, while the religious carry a “full cart” of principles, values and morals, secular Israelis are unburdened as their cart is an “empty” one.
“That story is done,” Grossman said. “Our cart is filled to the brim. The instigators of the coup did not read things correctly — not our passion for freedom, nor our primal values and wishes, the value of equality for each and every person, the democratic spirit, and humaneness,” Grossman said.
Grossman compared the “fanatics” he said were bent on destroying Israeli democracy and everything that has been achieved in the country to the Sicarii Jewish zealots in the decades before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. These modern Sicarii, he warned, “will remake the entire state in their image if we let them.”
“We are the last line of defense for Israel against crushing tyranny,” he said.
The coming days will be a period of dialogue at the President’s Residence, “and that’s good,” he said. But the people will return to protest with full force “the moment we recognize” that the discussion is not being conducted with integrity and honesty.
Earlier, in Tel Aviv, a group of demonstrators play-acted the national guard forces proposed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, which critics have said could amount to the minister’s private militia.
The masked “troops” hold a goose-stepping display to the tune of Star Wars’ menacing “Imperial March.”
מיצג מחאה נגד הקמת משמר לאומי תחת השר בן גביר ברחוב קפלן בתל אביב
קרדיט ספיר ליפקין pic.twitter.com/3KuelcVj8U
— לירי בורק שביט (@lirishavit) April 1, 2023
Yoav Horowitz, a former chief of staff to Netanyahu and former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, was spotted at the protest in Tel Aviv.
Horowitz was a longtime close confidant of Netanyahu, and the two served together in the Israel Defense Forces elite unit Sayeret Matkal. He was the prime minister’s chief of staff from 2016 to 2019 and was PMO director-general from May 2018, until he informed Netanyahu he would resign in June 2019.
Amid the nationwide anti-overhaul protests, hundreds of pro-overhaul protesters demonstrated on Weizmann Street in the central city of Kfar Saba. The demonstrators called on the government to cease the compromise negotiations and carry on with its original controversial plans.
Opposition parties have been engaged in talks with the coalition mediated by President Isaac Herzog since Tuesday. Though talks are ongoing, few expect them to yield an agreement and trust in Netanyahu negotiating in good faith is exceedingly low.
Ahead of Saturday’s rallies, protest leaders likened the pause announced by Netanyahu on Monday to the situation in Poland in 2017, where the president silenced protests against a judicial overhaul with a veto and calls for unity, before the government later enacted almost identical legislation.
“Just like in Poland, the government is taking time to reorganize in order to pass the judicial coup. It is the job of the people to stand up and protest in order to safeguard democracy,” protest leaders said in a statement.
Poland’s deputy foreign minister Pawel Jablonski on Monday said Israel consulted with his country about overhauling the judicial system, following past Polish moves to curb the judiciary’s authority, while constitutional scholars from Poland and Hungary, two countries seen to have undergone democratic backsliding in recent years, warned that Israel was facing the same dangers.
Speakers at the central rally in Tel Aviv Saturday included former head of the military intelligence directorate Major General (Res.) Amos Malka, constitutional law expert Dafna Holtz-Lavie, CEO of the Ethiopian Jewish Association Rinah Eilin Gorlick and Yossi Levy, former spokesperson to Netanyahu.
Organizers said the public must “send a resounding response to the violence and incitement from the prime minister, his family, and colleagues,” after supporters of the overhaul attacked an Arab taxi driver, anti-overhaul protesters, journalists and multiple passersby during pro-overhaul demonstrations in recent days.
“As in the days of the establishment of Israel, we are living in historical times, a true time of crisis,” they said in a statement.
Protest organizers said that recent comments by Justice Minister Yariv Levin showed that there was no real intention by the coalition to reach a compromise on the contentious plan.
“Anyone who read the statements made by the justice minister and other senior officials understands that unfortunately they do not want to reach broad agreements, but only want to buy time in order to undermine the protest,” organizers said.
Levin said Wednesday he would resume efforts to pass the hard-right coalition’s judicial overhaul after the Knesset’s upcoming Passover recess, sparking claims that talks aimed at reaching a broad consensus on the now-frozen legislation were being used as a fig leaf.
Netanyahu announced he was suspending the legislation Monday as opposition to the judicial overhaul intensified with mass spontaneous protests seeing hundreds of thousands pouring into the streets, followed by a national strike, after his firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had warned about the security implications of the coalition’s proposals and called for a halt to allow for talks.
The premier indicated the “time-out” would last until the Knesset’s next session, beginning April 30, meaning the pause will mostly take place when the Knesset would be in recess anyway.
But he stressed the overhaul would end up passing “one way or another,” and the “lost balance” between the branches of government would be restored. “We will not give up on the path for which we were elected,” he vowed.
Right-wing backers of the revamp held their first two major demonstrations this week — on Monday in Jerusalem and on Thursday in Tel Aviv. Each drew tens of thousands of people who view the overhaul as a restoration of democracy, rather than its doom.
Senior officials involved in the talks said Friday that the negotiations were already dead in the water due to the coalition’s insistence that it end up with control of the Judicial Selection Committee.
That demand is a non-starter for the opposition, essentially ending the chances for the negotiations before the talks got off the ground, officials involved in the process told Channel 12.
On Friday, hundreds of anti-overhaul demonstrators picketed outside the homes of Levin, Economy Minister Nir Barkat, Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter and MK David Bitan — all of Likud — seeking to exert additional pressure on them.
Over one hundred people also gathered outside the home of National Unity chair Benny Gantz, who has been the most vocal opposition lawmaker in favor of compromise with the coalition. The protesters urged him not to do so, chanting slogans such as, “you have no mandate to compromise on democracy.”
Dozens also protested against the overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport, holding up signs that read, “welcome to the dictatorship.”
The attorney general has warned that the coalition’s current package of legislation — which would give the coalition almost complete control over all judicial appointments, and radically constrain the High Court — would hand the government virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character.