Protesters plan rally at airport as Netanyahu leaves for US

‘March for democracy’: Tens of thousands expected at week 37 of anti-overhaul rallies

Weekly demonstrations shifted to Sunday due to Rosh Hashanah; organizers vow to protect Declaration of Independence after government lawyer downplays importance of document

Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on September 2, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Anti-overhaul activists protest against the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on September 2, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Israelis were expected to protest throughout the country on Sunday evening against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation for a 37th straight week, with organizers vowing to protect the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

The weekly mass protests normally take place on Saturdays, but this week were shifted to Sunday after the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday.

The main event was again expected to be the Tel Aviv demonstration. This week organizers said they would march from Rothchild Boulevard to Kaplan Street at 7 p.m. carrying a massive copy of the Declaration of Independence in what they called “The Victory of Democracy March.”

They called on participants to wear white in honor of the holiday, the Jewish New Year.

Organizers also called on activists to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport starting at around 9 p.m. in order to disrupt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nighttime departure for a trip to the US.

“In the past week the [government’s] propaganda machines came out against the Declaration of Independence and Israel’s founders,” they said in a statement.

“At least the cat is out of the bag and the government is openly admitting that they oppose the ideals of the Declaration of Independence for a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel based on the values of liberty, justice and peace,” they said.

The protest comes after the lawyer representing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government sparked an uproar during a high-stakes Tuesday High Court of Justice hearing on petitions against the first piece of judicial overhaul legislation, when he dismissed Israel’s foundational Declaration of Independence as a “hasty” document endorsed by unelected signatories that cannot be a source of legal authority.

Attorney Ilan Bombach, representing the Israeli government, arrives at a court hearing on petitions against the government’s reasonableness law, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several justices enumerated the view that the Knesset’s authority to legislate derives from the 1948 Declaration of Independence, which defines Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Arguing that the Knesset cannot legislate laws — even Basic Laws — that erode Israel’s Jewish or democratic character, the judges indicated that the court thus had the authority to police those guardrails.

But Ilan Bombach, the attorney who is representing the government in the High Court since Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has refused to do so, replied that the signatories of the foundational document were unelected and that it was “unthinkable” to say the declaration must “bind all future generations.”

“Because 37 people were authorized to sign the hasty Declaration of Independence, which was still being drafted until the last moment, this should obligate people who came later?” Bombach responded.

An unprecedented panel of all 15 justices presided over the highly charged session in response to petitions against a law, enacted in July, which restricts judicial review of government decisions using the rubric of reasonableness.

The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program which has been passed by the Knesset so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut and all fifteen judges assemble to hear petitions against the ‘reasonableness clause’ at the court premises in Jerusalem, on September 12, 2023. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. Members of the government’s coalition have been noncommittal as to whether they would abide by such a ruling, thereby potentially causing a constitutional crisis.

The court is not expected to rule for several months.

The protests also come ahead of another potential clash between the High Court and the government over elements of the overhaul.

The High Court is scheduled to hold a hearing next month at which petitions requesting that the court order Justice Minister Yariv Levin to convene the Judicial Selection Committee will be heard. The hearing had been scheduled for this Tuesday, September 19, but the court agreed to a request from Levin for a postponement, to no later than October 23, to enable him to file a more detailed response to an interim injunction it issued against Levin on Thursday demanding he explain why he has not convened the committee.

Levin has refused to convene the committee, which appoints all judges in Israel, as he seeks changes to its composition in order to grant the government near-total control of the panel, part of a wider effort to water down the independence of the judiciary, which the justice minister considers overly activist.

The injunction was issued a day after Levin told the court in his preliminary response that only he has the right to convene the Judicial Selection Committee, and warned that ordering him to do so would be violating constitutional balances between the executive and the judiciary.

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