Police called in as protesters hem in overhaul architect Rothman

Demonstrators surround Ramat Sharon home, seemingly blocking lawmaker’s way until officers able to escort his car through ad hoc rally; protest also held outside Gallant home

Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israelis protest against the government's planned judicial overhaul, near the Prime Minister's official residence in Jerusalem, March 23, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

A lawmaker at the center of the government’s efforts to overhaul Israel’s judiciary required the help of security forces to leave a home in central Israel late Thursday, capping a chaotic day of mass demonstrations against the legislation.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a key figure behind the judicial shakeup, had been visiting the Ramat Hasharon home of tech entrepreneur Yuval Tal when hundreds of protesters who got wind of his presence converged outside.

Rothman eventually left the home in a car surrounded by a phalanx of over a dozen police officers, who cleared a path between the protesters.

During the demonstration, protesters waved flags, blew horns or vuvuzellas and loudly chanted “shame.”

Some attempted to reach Rothman’s vehicle as it made its way through the crowd, but were pushed back by the police.

The demonstration was the latest to target lawmakers as they made their way between various activities Thursday, part of a day of mass protests aimed at pressuring lawmakers to back off the overhaul.

Police arrested at least 92 people across the country, and deployed horses and water cannons to clear demonstrators blocking roads in Tel Aviv and Haifa.

Earlier in the evening, protesters attempted to break into a Religious Zionism party event at a Petah Tikva hotel attended by Rothman and party head Bezalel Smotrich.

Policemen scuffled with protesters, and some were seen pushing former public security minister Omer Barlev, who until a few months ago was in charge of their activities.

Protesters indicated that the Ramat Hasharon demonstrations had been unplanned, but came together quickly once word got out that Rothman was in the city.

“We heard about the protest through WhatsApp groups for the neighborhood, for the city, in all the groups,” one protester told the Ynet news site. “We’ll stay until he leaves.”

In a tweet following the protests, Rothman said that “in both locations a small, violent group tried to keep me from arriving or leaving. Hearing and listening to uncomfortable things, that’s democracy. Violence, silencing others and blocking roads, that’s not democracy.”

Rothman, a relative newcomer to the Knesset, has long pushed for many of the changes proposed as part of the overhaul. As head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, he has played a major role in speeding bills making up the overhaul through the legislative process.

There was no immediate comment from Tal, whose house Rothman had been visiting. Tal co-founded payment services behemoth Payoneer. The company’s early investors included former prime minister Naftali Bennett, an erstwhile political ally of Smotrich.

MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Elsewhere, protesters gathered outside the home of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Moshav Amikam in northern Israel after he appeared to shelve plans to publicly call for the legislative push to be suspended. Demonstrators chanted “shame,” and called on Gallant to go ahead with a speech he had scheduled for Thursday evening and then canceled following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israelis have held nearly three months of mass demonstrations in opposition to the government’s judicial overhaul plans.

As it stands, the legislative package will — among other things — allow the Knesset to override court decisions with the barest majority, preemptively shield laws from judicial oversight, and put the selection of judges in the hands of coalition politicians.

Thousands of Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, March 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

While supporters say the judicial overhaul will rebalance power away from an overly activist court, critics argue the moves will remove essential checks on executive and legislative power, putting democracy in peril and leaving the rights of many undefended.

In a statement Thursday evening, Netanyahu vowed to get involved in the judicial overhaul despite a conflict of interest agreement that bars him from doing so due to his ongoing criminal trial.

While he promised to take the opposition’s concerns into account and seek to balance the legislation, he also said the government will press ahead with the bill to assert control over the panel that chooses judges — saying it will pass in its present form in the Knesset next week.

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