Several thousand military reservists and IDF veterans, together with members of the public from the elderly to families with young children, rallied outside the Supreme Court building in Jerusalem soon after noon on Friday, at the culmination of the reservists’ and veterans’ three-day march from Latrun to protest the government’s planned radical changes to the judicial system.
The protesters gathered in a sea of Israeli flags, interspersed with the flags of their military units. “Raise your flags if you love the State of Israel,” speakers from the stage, set up just outside the court, repeatedly exhorted the crowd, stressing that their cause was non-partisan and that victory in the battle against the coalition’s proposed overhaul was vital to Israel’s survival.
Many wore shirts emblazoned with slogans declaring themselves “Brothers in arms” in the war to save Israeli democracy, and stickers were distributed terming the moment a “Tzav 8 for democracy.” “Tzav 8” is the military term for an emergency call-up.
“People walked for three days in rain and cold for the love of Israel,” Lior Schnabel, one of the organizers, told the rally, expressing horror that, at one stage of the march, stones were thrown at some of the participants. “We won’t allow a rift between right and left,” he said. “This is a war for democracy, a war for the sake of us all.”
Referring to the coalition’s plan to bring the first pieces of the overhaul legislation to a first reading in the Knesset on Monday, Schnabel said this would mark “a decision that is the end of democracy.” No longer an independent institution, the “lovely court building” behind him, he said, would become filled with “government functionaries” — an allusion to one element of the overhaul that would give the coalition a majority on the committee that selects justices. “Without separation of powers, there is no democracy,” he said.
Schnabel urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “stop this madness. Do not go down in history as the hangman of Israeli democracy.”
Other speakers included Matan Vilnai, a former deputy chief of staff, and Tal Russo, who served as chief of the military’s Southern Command, both of them former Labor Party politicians.
The march and closing rally was the latest in a series of demonstrations against the sweeping judicial shake-up. Organizers claimed there were 10,000 people at the Friday event, which was peaceful, with a light police presence.
Vilnai hailed the assembled “war heroes, builders and protectors of the state,” and told them that this was “a battle for our home.” He said the state was founded on the principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, including the maintenance of a Jewish and democratic Israel, with justice, the rule of law and equality. “They say this is ‘reform’; it is not reform, it is destruction that will ultimately doom the state,” Vilnai charged.
He also noted that Israel’s military men and women would be vulnerable to international tribunals if deprived of the protection of a credible and independent Israeli Supreme Court. “Nobody, and certainly not a fleeting Knesset majority, has the mandate to destroy Israeli democracy,” he said, calling out Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (a former IDF South Command chief) and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter (a former Shin Bet head) for their silence. Their names were met with boos, and cries of “cowards,” from some of the crowd.
“You were with us in the command,” he said of the two Likud ministers. “Raise your voices. This is not about partisan politics. This is about the nature of the State of Israel.”
Urged Vilnai: “Get up and join us. There is no public majority for this destruction.”
Russo said earlier in the week that hoped the overhaul could be halted and that the protests could help inject some “sense into this gang of out-of-touch people.”
Latrun, a strategic hill some 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Jerusalem, was the site of fierce fighting during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence and 1967 Six Day War. A British police fort on the hill was converted into a memorial site for fallen soldiers of Israel’s Armored Corps, as well as a museum.
On Tuesday, 15 ex-Armored Corps major generals and dozens more senior officers — several of them with decorations and citations — penned a letter against the government’s judicial plans.
The letter, first published by Channel 13 news, warned that in addition to harming democracy, the shake-up would harm recruitment to the IDF and the call-up of reserve forces.
“The Israeli government’s legislative plan to change the nature of the regime will severely damage the justice system, bring the end of democracy, and bring a dictatorship rule in our country,” the letter read.
“As senior commanders in the Armored Corps, we warn against moves that could damage the motivation and willingness of the reserves army to mobilize,” the officers added.
מחאת המילואימניקים יוצאת מלטרון לבית המשפט העליון בירושלים. בראשם ראש המוסד לשעבר תמיר פרדו והאלוף במיל טל רוסו pic.twitter.com/DwiEFUPDsb
— Or Heller אור הלר (@OrHeller) February 8, 2023
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has prioritized the proposals. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, they will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
The plan has drawn intense criticism and warnings from leading financial and legal experts, as well as weekly protests and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.
Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism, saying that the proposals would strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition have also vowed to pass other controversial bills, some of which relate to the military.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.