Masses of Israelis took part in protests Saturday evening against the government’s efforts to radically remake the country’s justice system, with estimates pointing to 130,000-160,000 in Tel Aviv and tens of thousands more around the country.
Beyond the main rally in central Tel Aviv, a particularly large demonstration was held in Haifa, where media estimated some 30,000 participated. Other protests in Jerusalem, Herzliya, Beersheba and other cities drew many more thousands.
Organizers claimed that some 300,000 took part in rallies around the country, making the latest demonstrations the largest ones yet.
The coalition’s plans to severely weaken the judiciary have sparked mass protests and warnings of the potential for extensive economic and social harm from top public figures including jurists, economists, business leaders, high-tech entrepreneurs and reservists from top military units.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the protesters were trying “to create anarchy” and force another election.
In Tel Aviv, demonstrators waved Israeli flags and countless homemade placards, bearing such messages as “No Constitution, No Democracy,” “They Shall Not Pass” and “We Shall Override.”
Former prime minister Ehud Barak called the judicial overhaul plan “an assassination of the Declaration of Independence, which will turn Israel into a dictatorship.”
Barak described the current internal upheaval as “the worst crisis since the formation of the state.”
Appealing to President Isaac Herzog, who has attempted to remain neutral and mediate between the sides, Barak said: “Mr. President, it’s time for you to say — are you in the camp of the bulldozer [with which to wreck the court] or in the camp of the Declaration of Independence?”
He said there was no room for dialogue so long as the coalition was proceeding with its legislative blitz. “When there is a gun at your head, first it must be removed. Only when the legislation is canceled will it be possible to consider dialogue.”
“If these dictatorship laws come to fruition, we will have to walk the path of nonviolent civil disobedience,” Barak added.
At the rally, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said North American Jews were “very concerned about the judicial overhaul that will change Israel’s democracy beyond recognition.
“We are used to standing by Israel when it is threatened, but now Israel is also being threatened… we will invest efforts together with you to fight for the character of the State of Israel and in the name of Judaism we will protect democracy.”
And former police commissioner Roni Alsheich said he was sure police “will refuse to carry out any illegal action,” apparently implying if the High Court were to strike down the new legislation, police would side with judges and not the government.
Alsheich called demonstrators “patriots who are devoted to the state, far more than many elected officials,” while lambasting Netanyahu’s contempt for the mass rallies.
As the main rally in Tel Aviv ended, hundreds of protesters marched down to the Ayalon Highway, clashing with cops who tried — unsuccessfully — to prevent them from blocking the major thoroughfare.
Some demonstrators set tires and wooden planks alight on the road, which was blocked for several hours.
Fire lit during Israeli anti-gov't protests on Tel Aviv's Ayalon Highway pic.twitter.com/3YI9aB8L9P
— Allyn Fisher-Ilan (@AFilan) February 25, 2023
Police said 21 protesters had been arrested.
Cops also opened an investigation into one protester seen writing graffiti on the highway calling Netanyahu a “traitor.”
A few police officers were hurt by violent demonstrators, the force stated, including two who were bitten by rioters.
In response to those events, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said the events “show that this is a protest of anarchists,” accused the demonstrators of an “illegal rampage” and said he expected police to show “zero tolerance.”
Ben Gvir called on opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to “immediately condemn the anarchic riot and incitement.”
Now in Tel Aviv anti government protesters pass the police and block the highway pic.twitter.com/R8RhCEVuWj
— Oren Ziv (@OrenZiv_) February 25, 2023
At the Haifa protest, Gantz, the leader of the National Unity party, said Netanyahu should be “striking against our enemies and not against citizens,” a reference to controversial comments Netanyahu made to cabinet ministers on the need to “punch back” at protesters.
תמונת רחפן מהצעדה בחיפה ???? pic.twitter.com/JhyUXRBCFe
— לוחמי כיפור (@lochamei) February 25, 2023
Gantz said protesters “will continue fighting for [the country] and will ensure that it will be as is written in the Declaration of Independence.”
Legal experts have warned that legislation introduces to severely limit High Court oversight of the government will, among other things, leave basic rights such as equality and freedom of speech unprotected.
In Beersheba, Omri Sharon, the son of late Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon and a former MK himself, said reforms were needed in the justice system but judges must not become political appointments (the shakeup would see the coalition given full control over the Judicial Appointments Committee).
“Reforms should not be passed in a frenzy, aggressively, steamrolling [the opposition] and without consideration.”
In Jerusalem, former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein was among the speakers, warning that a system in which politicians choose Israel’s judges would mean the court would no longer be able to protect Israeli soldiers from international courts. He said he backed a dialogue on the overhaul for the sake of national unity, but only if it was substantive rather than cosmetic, and if there was a pause in the coalition’s legislative process.
In Herzliya, an enormous copy of Israel’s Declaration of Independence was hung on the municipality building, purportedly by anti-government protesters. It was not immediately clear if the move was approved by the municipality.
Ahead of the protests, Netanyahu said in a series of tweets that the opposition was seeking anarchy in the country.
“They are intending to create anarchy in the State of Israel and to harm its economy in order to bring a sixth election,” he wrote, while opposition leaders have been “silent in the face of explicit calls by protest leaders for bloodshed, use of weapons, civil rebellion, assassinating the prime minister… they just cannot accept that they lost the election.”
Netanyahu said he was calling on “responsible voices in the opposition not to cooperate with this lawlessness” and instead to immediately enter “serious dialogue for the good of the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel.”
Lapid tweeted to Netanyahu that “the time has come to end your lies.”
“As all the important economists in the country and the world have explained, you’re the one who is destroying the economy, you are the one who is dividing the nation, you are the one inciting to violence.”
Lapid added that “we will not allow you to destroy the Israeli democracy and we have no intention to be quiet in the face of your poisonous incitement.”
The next day of nationwide protests was planned for Wednesday, which protest organizers said would be “a day of struggle” around the country. They have not yet announced their plans, but are expected to lead various acts of disruption throughout the country, whether by blocking roads or other means.
Since being sworn in less than two months ago, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the proposals to transform the judiciary, which are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
Amazing handmaid's tale demonstration today in Tel Aviv. Israeli women know that without democracy their civil rights are at risk…. pic.twitter.com/mO8Dlq0mWV
— Roy Salomon (@royesal) February 25, 2023
Despite the protests and calls for dialogue, the government was planning to push ahead with further legislation next week.
Rothman was planning to bring the so-called “override” bill, which passed a preliminary reading last week, for discussion in his committee on Sunday morning, Channel 12 reported.
According to Rothman’s bill, passed as Basic Law: Override, the Knesset could legislate nearly any law with a clause making the law entirely immune to judicial oversight. Laws that are not made immune will require a unanimous decision by all 15 High Court justices.
The coalition is also reportedly planning this coming week to advance legislation that would radically limit the circumstances in which the recusal of a serving prime minister can be ordered.
The sweeping reforms, which have been bulldozed through the Knesset in recent weeks include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges to the High Court, all but eliminating the court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.
Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
Top economic figures have repeatedly warned the overhaul will cause severe damage to the economy. After the Knesset passed initial votes on the legislation on Tuesday, marking the first significant steps in its divisive effort, the shekel depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar and Tel Aviv shares declined.
Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed the predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.