In about face, Lapid to attend anti-government protest as Deri ruling revs up battle

Opposition leader, previously criticized for not leading demonstrations, calls on citizens to ‘protect beloved country from democratic ruin’ at Saturday night rally

Protesters gather to rally against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Protesters gather to rally against the Israeli government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid reversed his decision to avoid mass public protests against a planned judicial overhaul, announcing Wednesday that he will attend a Saturday evening demonstration expected to draw tens of thousands to the streets in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

“We’re stopping the madness [and] fighting for the country in Haifa, in Jerusalem, in Tel Aviv,” Lapid said in a video posted to social media on Wednesday. “Come and protect our beloved country from democratic ruin, Yes, I’ll be there too,” he added, following criticism in recent weeks for being a no-show at weekly protests in Tel Aviv, reportedly due to the organizers declining to allow him to speak at the event.

Demonstrators will be gathering on Saturday for the third consecutive weekend to rally against contentious plans put forward by the new hardline coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for radical changes to the judicial system that will restrict the High Court of Justice’s powers.

Lapid’s announcement came moments after the High Court ruled that Shas leader Aryeh Deri could not serve as minister due to a conviction on tax offenses, sparking promises by the coalition to double down efforts to pass legislation shackling the court and promises by government critics to defend the judiciary.

At the last rally on Saturday, police estimated that some 80,000 people gathered at Habima Square in Tel Aviv and the surrounding streets for the protests, while smaller demonstrations were also held in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Among those in attendance in Tel Aviv were former opposition leader Tzipi Livni, former prime minister Ehud Barak, National Unity party leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz, former IDF chief and National Unity lawmaker Gadi Eisenkot, Labor party leader Merav Michaeli, and Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas.

Lapid said ahead of the protest that he would not join, reportedly after being told that organizers wanted to avoid making the rally overtly partisan.

It was not immediately clear if Lapid was set to address the crowd on Saturday.

Protesters have sought to thwart Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shackle and curb Israel’s independent judiciary by severely restricting the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.

The plans, which are fully backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, have drawn fierce criticism from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, and political opposition leaders, as well as a slew of other legal professionals and former key figures, who have warned that the proposals will destroy any separation of powers, hollowing out Israel’s democratic system and putting civil liberties at risk.

In an extraordinary speech last week, Hayut said the enactment of the coalition’s legal overhaul would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in Tel Aviv on January 14, 2023 (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has brushed off the criticism and argued that the planned changes would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end. He’s also charged that the government was carrying out the will of the people.

In the cabinet meeting on Sunday, he said the coalition “will complete legislating the reforms in a way that will correct what needs correcting, will totally protect individual rights and will restore the public’s faith in the justice system that so much requires this reform.”

On Wednesday, the High Court dealt a blow to Netanyahu’s government, ruling that Deri, a key coalition partner, could not serve in ministerial appointments due to his criminal convictions, most recently for tax fraud in 2022.

The near-unanimous ruling added fuel to the simmering tensions between the government and the legal community over the judicial plans and sparked immediate calls by the ruling coalition to redouble the push for legislation intended to shackle the court’s ability to rule on government or Knesset decisions. The opposition hailed the decision and called for Deri to immediately vacate his cabinet posts or for Netanyahu to fire him.

Most Popular
read more: