Ben Gvir: If I'd quit, it would have been anarchists' victory

In first, tens of thousands rally to back overhaul; ministers promise it will pass

As PM announces delay, protesters demand judicial reform move forward, rail against ‘elites,’ claim election ‘stolen’ from them

Protesters attend a rally in support of the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Protesters attend a rally in support of the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of government supporters demonstrated in Jerusalem on Monday in favor of its judicial overhaul and against its planned halt, shortly before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced it was being put on hold.

The rally was the largest event of its kind since the government launched its far-reaching legislative plan in January. The past months have seen massive anti-overhaul protests, but supporters’ rallies were few and far between until it became clear Monday that the plan was being delayed.

Netanyahu said he was pausing the effort to reform the judiciary to allow a potential compromise deal with the opposition.

At the pro-overhaul rally at Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, protesters chanted “Our voice isn’t less important than a pilot’s,” a reference to widespread warnings by Air Force reserve pilots that they would not serve if Israel’s democracy was harmed, as they contended the overhaul will do. Others cried, “We know exactly who we voted for.”

Some held signs reading, “Second-class citizen” and “They’re stealing the election from us.” Many chanted, “The people want judicial reform,” while some also shouted: “Where were you in Gush Katif,” recalling Israel’s settlement bloc in Gaza before the 2005 Disengagement.

Police worked to keep pro-reform protesters and anti-overhaul protesters who had also gathered outside the Knesset separate to avoid violence between the two sides. Some 100,000 anti-overhaul protesters had gathered near the Knesset in the afternoon, though by the time of the right-wing rally, most had dispersed.

Despite police efforts, footage showed activists from the two sides scuffling.

As pro-judicial shakeup protesters arrived at Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, anti-overhaul protesters also marched by, with some sitting there to claim space.

Some young men yelled at the anti-overhaul protesters: “You’re whores, what kind of equality of rights are you talking about, leftist whores!”

“We’ll fuck you up,” they shouted.

Others sought to hold dialogue, debating the points of the legislation.

“You need to remember diversity is the answer to everything,” one supporter of the judicial changes said to an anti-overhaul demonstrator, arguing in favor of the coalition’s push to diversify the High Court (critics say the court has its fair share of diverse, conservative voices, and that the legislation will not allow more diversity, but politicization).

“We keep electing right-wing, but getting left-wing decisions,” he added, echoing a common refrain on the right.

La Familia, a group of ultra-nationalist soccer fans who back Jerusalem’s Beitar FC, announced it would attend the protest outside the Knesset. The group’s history of violence led to some concern that the rally could include unrest.

At the rally, government ministers lined up to assure protesters that the reforms will continue, despite Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the process.

Likud’s Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana addressed the demonstration and asked the masses to curb fiery discourse and avoid violence.

“We are in a sensitive, stormy, and delicate period,” Ohana said. “There are no enemies. There is one nation that is divided over our path and is hoping for better days. Let’s fulfill this hope, together.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir told the rally that earlier in the day he had briefly decided to resign from the government over the decision to pause the legislation, but then decided to stay after witnessing the anti-overhaul protests.

“I went outside and saw the anarchists’ demonstration and understood that if I resign, it will give them a victory. They will not win,” he said.

In exchange for his support of the delay to the process, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party said the premier agreed to advance the planned formation of a “national guard” directly subordinate to the minister, which has sparked alarm in the opposition, due to concerns the minister will use it to abuse power.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem on March 27, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

In his speech, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told protesters that they represented the country’s majority, who want a reform of the judiciary.

“Mister Prime Minister, announce that we are legislating the reform this week,” he said.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi told protesters that they were giving the coalition “an impetus to continue promoting what you chose.”

“I say to you we will not stop. With God’s help, the reform will pass. Even if there is a delay, don’t lose heart,” he said.

Likud MK Tali Gottlieb appealed directly to Netanyahu, telling him, “You don’t have the right to concede.”

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, who has been steering the legislation through the Knesset’s Constitution Committee, praised the crowds for coming out “because you are demanding that [the coalition] must not fold. And we will do everything to ensure that the correction of the judicial system happens. It will happen because that’s what the people demand.”

Though he did not speak at the rally itself, Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar tweeted that the tens of thousands of pro-reform demonstrators “give us strength in this difficult and complicated period.”

“It is our duty to continue our just fight for the necessary reform of the legal system. Despite the temporary pause, we will not give up the reform, and even do everything possible in order to reach agreements and unite the rift in the nation of Israel,” he tweeted.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a meeting at the Knesset on March 27, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The pro-overhaul rally came as demonstrations against the legislation took place nationwide on Monday, a day after spontaneous mass protests broke out on Sunday night after Netanyahu announced he will fire Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for publicly calling to freeze the process.

Netanyahu made no mention of Gallant’s ousting when he announced the delay of the overhaul and it was not clear whether he intended to reverse the move.

The premier’s declaration was welcomed by opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Unity chief Benny Gantz.

Gantz said he was ready to enter negotiations at the President’s Residence “with an open heart, not to defeat, but to agree.” Lapid was warier, stressing he wanted to be sure the legislation was really being stopped before joining talks.

“We need to sit together and write the Israeli constitution based on the values of the Declaration of Independence. We need to let the president determine a mechanism for the dialogue and trust him to be a fair mediator,” he said.

The Histadrut labor union also called off a general strike it had announced earlier on Monday, but vowed it would restart immediately if a compromise was not reached.

Weekly mass protests have been held for nearly three months against the planned legislation, which critics say will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character. Proponents of the measures say they will rein in a judiciary that they argue has overstepped its bounds.

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