Many tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in mass rallies on Saturday evening against the government’s legislative efforts to dramatically weaken the High Court of Justice and secure political control over judicial appointments.
A first reading of some of the controversial proposals is set for Monday; a bill must pass three readings to become law, and the coalition has indicated it seeks to blitz the legislation through the Knesset by April.
According to organizers, some 145,000 people were gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, with another 83,000 in other areas across the country, in what would mark the highest turnout to date on the sixth successive Saturday night of demonstrations. No estimate was available from police.
The main protest in Tel Aviv began with a march from Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard, with a gathering held at Kaplan Street.
Police also allowed protesters to also march on the Ayalon Highway.
The demonstrators waved Israeli flags and carried signs reading: “The destruction of democracy is in full swing.”
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) February 11, 2023
Thousands rallied in other cities and towns across the country, including Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Karmiel and Petah Tikva.
אלפי מפגינים עולים על איילון צפון וחוסמים אותו באישור המשטרה (צילום: אורן זיו) pic.twitter.com/hCCD29kzEX
— שיחה מקומית (@mekomit) February 11, 2023
In Jerusalem, thousands gathered outside the President’s Residence held a moment of silence for the three Israelis killed in a Friday afternoon terror attack.
Former justice minister Tzipi Livni was among the speakers at the event on Kaplan Street.
“We did not take to the streets because of the election results. We are here because of what you have been doing since you were elected. Personal laws, a political takeover of the gatekeepers, persecution of civil servants. This madness has a name. It is no longer signs, but the thing itself — fascism,” Livni said.
For the 6th week in a row, mass protests against Netanyahu's plan to weaken the judicial system. According to assessments, more than 100K people are demonstrating tonight across Israel – in Tel Aviv (here in the drone footage????), Jerusalem, Haifa & a dozen other major cities pic.twitter.com/vFrWhd4jQz
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) February 11, 2023
Speaking to Channel 12 news from the protest in Tel Aviv, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz indicated that Israelis would not want to serve in the military if the government moves ahead with its judicial plans.
“Draft dodging in a democracy is one thing, and draft dodging in a dictatorship is another. I think that soldiers and officers who recognize that there is a dictatorship here, will not want to become mercenaries of a dictator,” Halutz said.
In Modiin, several hundred people rallied outside the home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin.
במודיעין, מול ביתו של יריב לוין. מאות אנשים כבר כאן, רבים אחרים בדרך! pic.twitter.com/6PhJXY3qfa
— Ksenia Svetlova كسنيا سفطلوفا (@KseniaSvetlova) February 11, 2023
For the first time since the protests began, a demonstration was also held in the West Bank settlement of Efrat.
The mass rallies have been held on a weekly basis every Saturday night, alongside smaller protests by various sectors of society including military reservists, tech workers, parents, students, lawyers and medical workers. On Thursday night, hundreds protested outside the Jerusalem home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Tel-aviv's central Highway blocked pic.twitter.com/RjeqCACiDt
— Yossi Mendes (@MendesYossi) February 11, 2023
In addition, rallies have been held in cities across the United States, as well as in a number of European capitals.
Protest leaders have called for a nationwide worker strike on Monday to coincide with the first rounds of voting on the legislation, an escalation in the demonstrations against the contentious proposals.
There will also be a mass rally outside the Knesset in Jerusalem at midday on Monday, as well as concurrent protests in other cities.
According to a poll aired by Channel 12 news on Friday, just one in four Israelis support the government moving forward with the proposed overhaul legislation in its current form.
As presented by Levin, the coalition’s proposals would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.
The government’s proposal has faced searing criticism from numerous top current and former jurists, including Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.
Former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said in an interview broadcast Thursday that the sweeping reform of the legal and judicial system would be “regime change” that would “eliminate the independence of Israel’s legal system from end to end.”
Mandelblit also accused Netanyahu of advancing the overhaul in order to bring his ongoing criminal trial to a premature end and insisted that he had been right to indict the premier despite the political instability that ensued.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases where he faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in two cases, and bribery, fraud and breach of trust in the third. He denies wrongdoing and says the charges were fabricated in a political coup led by the police and state prosecution.
The plan has also come under severe criticism across the business sector in Israel and around the world, with tech professionals, money managers, and financial institutions warning that it can lead to a brain drain among professionals, the outflow of funds from Israel and a decline in investments from abroad. Former Bank of Israel governors have also warned of its detrimental effects.
Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has prioritized the dramatic judicial restructuring that would increase government control over the judiciary.
Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the sweeping reforms will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended. Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism.
Ahead of Monday’s first reading, the government plans to bring two other controversial pieces of legislation to a key Knesset committee on Sunday.
A legislative tool enabling the Knesset to pass laws that are not subject to judicial review, a key pillar of the overhaul, will be brought before the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.
The draft bill, proposed by Rothman, would allow the Knesset to pass legislation that would prevent the High Court of Justice from striking it down.
In addition, a law will be discussed to enable Shas leader Aryeh Deri to be appointed to a ministerial position, after the High Court of Justice ruled he could no longer hold ministerial office, will also be brought to a vote in the committee.
The High Court ruled last month that Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister was unreasonable in the extreme owing to his conviction in 2022 on two counts of tax fraud, and his 1999 conviction on bribery charges.
The court also determined that since Deri had given the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court, which convicted him over the tax charges, the impression he was permanently retiring from political office in order to secure a plea bargain in that case, his appointment as minister could not be accepted due to the judicial principle of estoppel.
Should they be approved, the bills would then move to the Knesset for their preliminary hearings.