Protesters block homes of MKs as mass protests set to descend on Jerusalem

Tens of thousands expected to rally outside Knesset and other locations; organizers reportedly threaten to ramp up fight as first part of judicial overhaul heads to first vote

Protesters block the car of MK Simcha Rothman outside his home in the West Bank on February 20, 2023 (Screencapture/Twitter Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Protesters block the car of MK Simcha Rothman outside his home in the West Bank on February 20, 2023 (Screencapture/Twitter Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Protesters blocked the home of several members of Knesset early Monday ahead of a day of mass protests against government plans to radically alter the country’s judicial system.

Thousands of parents and students were also demonstrating outside schools and educational institutions across the country.

Nearly two months of angry wrangling between proponents and opponents of the overhaul were set to come to a head Monday, as lawmakers readied a planned bid to push a central part of the controversial package, giving the coalition control over choosing judges, past a first major Knesset hurdle.

Setting the stage for a virtual battle royale, protest organizers have declared Monday a “national day of struggle,” calling for a large rally outside the Knesset, marches in various cities, and other actions they hope will raise opposition to the government to a fevered pitch.

Several dozen protesters blocked the entrance to the home of Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset Law Constitution and Justice Committee and a key architect of the plan.

The demonstrators, IDF veterans from the “brothers in arms” group, tried to prevent his car from leaving for the Knesset.

Protesters also blocked the home of Likud MK Tally Gotliv, who has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the reform and of Education Minister Yoav Kisch.

Eight people were detained by police outside their homes.

The vote and protests will mark the most fateful day yet for the controversial judicial overhaul package pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government, which would cramp the High Court’s ability to overrule certain Knesset or government decisions and give politicians control over nominations to the bench.

A wide chorus of criticism stretching from the judiciary through civil society and to the business community has warned that the moves will essentially neuter Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances; weekly protests have drawn 100,000 or more to the streets, piling pressure on the government to compromise.

Backers of the overhaul dismiss the criticism and say it will rebalance the relationship between judges and politicians in favor of democratically elected lawmakers.

Organizers told police they expect some 30,000 protesters outside of the Knesset for a demonstration at 2 p.m., though authorities expect the number to be significantly higher, Channel 12 news reported. A demonstration in Jerusalem a week ago over the same overhaul plan saw some 70,000 participants.

In preparation, police have set up a second row of barricades protecting the parliament building, the channel said. Hundreds of extra police are expected to be on hand for the protest.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned reform to the legal system, outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on February 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Starting at 4 p.m., lawmakers inside will convene in the plenum to consider the first reading of a bill that would give the ruling coalition control of the Judicial Appointments Committee, which picks new Supreme Court justices. If the bill passes, as it is widely expected to do, it will move back to committee before two final Knesset votes.

The bill, which would amend a basic law, also includes a critical rider that would prevent the High Court from being able to overturn a Basic Law, protecting the controversial legislation from judicial oversight.

The fight over the reform has enflamed passions on both sides of the aisle, with both proponents and opponents describing the fight as an existential battle for the soul of Israel’s democracy.

A Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting a week ago to approve the legislation for first reading devolved into a near-melee, with over a dozen members of the opposition removed as they chanted “shame” and “disgrace.”

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman arguing during a committee hearing, February 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a message, protest organizers said that “faced with the passage of the dictator’s bill, the protests will intensify,” Channel 12 news reported.

On Saturday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai appeared on television to issue a stark warning to Israelis to tamp down on bombastic or inciting rhetoric.

“The situation we’re in keeps me awake at night. We’re on a steep slope, of inflammatory argument, of people writing things without considering the impact they can have on the other side,” Shabtai told Channel 12 news. “This is an opportunity to tell everyone to breathe, calm down, to discuss, and not to become violent in words or deeds.”

Demonstrators rally in Tel Aviv to protest the Israeli government’s overhaul of the judicial system, on February 18, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The main protest will be followed by a candle-lit march from Agranat Square, with nearby roads expected to be closed off. Organizers have asked opponents of the bill to also participate in other actions, such as protests outside schools between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. and flag marches in various locations around the country at 10 a.m. Large-scale protests are also planned in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

Despite the large number of people coming into the capital, Transportation Minister Miri Regev has for the second week declined to bolster train service to Jerusalem.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed the decision in a tweet late Sunday, predicting overcrowded conditions “could end in a mass disaster.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev at a ceremony for electric buses in Bnei Brak, February 19, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

In another setback for the protests, the head of the powerful Histadrut union said last week that it will not strike in solidarity with the protests on Monday, instead calling on the opposing sides to hold compromise talks.

On Sunday, President Isaac Herzog said he believed a compromise deal on the judicial overhaul could be clinched within days, after talks with various officials involved.

“From all my discussions, it is clear that on the basis of the principles I presented last week, it is possible to come to agreements in a relatively short timeframe,” he said.

Herzog’s efforts are largely a thought experiment, however, with the coalition and the opposition both balking at entering negotiations, while accusing the other of being unwilling to negotiate.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at a Bible lesson as part of the 929 initiative at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, February 19, 2023. (Amos Ben Gershom/ GPO)

Lapid has demanded the legislation be put on hold for 60 days as a precondition to talks — a request the coalition has rejected.

“We have no intention of stopping. Any talks will have to take place without preconditions,” a Likud source was quoted telling Ynet news Sunday.

Nonetheless, foreign allies worried that the moves could leave minority rights unprotected and warnings from the business community that the turmoil could sour the investment environment in Israel have heaped even more pressure on the government to enter talks and water down the plans.

On Saturday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin denied reports that claimed he had been at odds with Netanyahu, who was ostensibly pushing for more moderate judicial changes.

Levin told Channel 13 that the reports were “ridiculous fake news.”

Demonstrators carry a massive Declaration of Independence during a rally in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s plans to overhaul the judiciary on February 18, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

While the coalition agreed to delay some parts of its judicial overhaul plans, it is pushing ahead with other sections and related legislation, including a bill allowing Shas head Aryeh Deri to serve as a minister despite a conviction on tax offenses and one proposed by Rothman preventing the court from overturning Knesset laws.

The High Court of Justice has struck down or ordered amended 22 pieces of legislation since 1997, mostly on the basis that they contradicted the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.

Rothman’s bill would only allow the court to strike down non-Basic Law legislation if all 15 judges agree to do so.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman and Justice Minister Yariv Levin shake hands at a committee hearing, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin said Saturday that as the bills proceed through the Knesset, they will naturally be subject to public debate and changes. “What will end up in the Knesset will not be the same as what I proposed,” he said.

“I made a proposal that I think is suitable to debate. I’m ready to meet with Lapid and [National Unity party chair Benny] Gantz tonight. I think we need to sit down and talk. What sort of a thing is it to set conditions in order to talk?” Levin asked.

Likud MK David Bitan on Saturday was insistent that the parties would eventually find common ground on the issue.

“Of course, it will end with a compromise — 100 percent,” he told Channel 12, adding: “It’s our responsibility to conduct negotiations.”

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