PM: Vote now, then dialogue; Lapid: Democracy being annulled

Tens of thousands rally near Knesset ahead of 1st plenum vote on judicial overhaul

Protesters block roads around the country; opposition leaders say they won’t negotiate while coalition refuses to pause legislative process

Thousands of protesters wave Israeli flags as they rally against the judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Thousands of protesters wave Israeli flags as they rally against the judicial overhaul outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of protesters against the government’s plan to radically overhaul the judiciary assembled outside the Knesset on Monday for a rally as the coalition prepared to hold a first vote on a key piece of legislation shoring up the plan.

Masses gathered outside parliament waving blue and white flags and chanting “De-mo-cra-cy” as they demanded the government halt its efforts to remove most judicial oversight on legislation and assert full political control over judge selection.

According to a crowd analyst for Channel 13 who analyzed camera footage, over 70,000 people took part in the demonstration outside the Knesset.

Nearly two months of angry wrangling between proponents and opponents of the overhaul were coming to a head as lawmakers readied their bid to push a central plank of the controversial package — cementing government control over judicial appointments and constraining Supreme Court review of Basic Laws — past a first major Knesset hurdle.

Addressing the demonstration at the Knesset, former Likud justice minister Dan Meridor said his longtime party had lost its way.

“To the Likud party I say, where have you gone?” Meridor asked.

“Stop before it’s too late,” he pleaded, warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would be remembered for “destroying” Israeli democracy.

The vote and protests mark the most fateful day yet for the controversial judicial overhaul package pursued by Netanyahu’s hardline government.

Israelis protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, near the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. (Amir Tirkel)

Speaking at a faction meeting as the rally went on, Netanyahu denounced protest leaders but insisted that an agreement could be reached on the government’s judicial overhaul package.

“We all said six weeks ago there is room for dialogue, but there is no place for thuggish behavior,” said Netanyahu. “Opposition leaders, come and talk. There is still time. We can still reduce the gaps and come to agreements.”

Israelis crowd the train station in Jerusalem on their way to a mass protest outside the Knesset against the government’s legal overhaul, February 20, 2023. (Flash90)

Nonetheless, Netanyahu stressed that Monday’s votes needed to go ahead as planned, despite a request by President Isaac Herzog to halt the legislation in order for the sides to negotiate over the compromise proposal he presented last week.

“Today there will be votes, and tomorrow I hope the path will be opened to dialogue,” Netanyahu said. One thing won’t change, he concluded: “The people made their electoral choices and the representatives of the people will exercise their right to vote here in the Knesset. That’s called democracy.”

On Monday morning, protesters blocked key roads around the country. Thousands of parents and students demonstrated in the morning outside schools and educational institutions across the country.

Some surrounded the homes of several members of Knesset and attempted to stop them from leaving, drawing condemnations not only from Netanyahu and members of his coalition — who have sought to tar the protesters as “anarchists” — but also from opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Responding to the road blockages, including on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway and near the Azrieli Towers in Tel Aviv, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir held what he said was an “urgent” situational assessment at a police command center in Jerusalem.

A statement from Ben Gvir’s office said “anarchists are going wild,” with protests going “out of control” and blocking roads in contravention of his policy.

“Freedom of speech — yes, anarchy — no,” the far-right minister said.

Ben Gvir routinely paints anti-government protesters as “anarchists.”

Israelis in the streets of Tel Aviv protest the government’s planned judicial overhaul on February 20, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Protest organizers had declared the day 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 fever-pitch.

A demonstration in Jerusalem a week ago over the same overhaul plan saw at least 90,000 participants, although some put the number as much higher.

Among those who joined the Knesset protest were several current and former IDF reservists carrying banners emblazoned with slogans such as “brothers in arms.”

“I’m a warrior. A warrior against my enemies. And a warrior for my values. Now, I’m fighting on the home front,” said 69-year-old Yohanan Ittach from the central town of Nirit.

“I’m not doing this for myself. It’s for my children, my grandchildren,” he said.

Also making her way out of the train station was Shiri, who took a vacation day in order to join the protest. “No, I don’t think it will change,” she said of the government’s overhaul plan. Nevertheless, “we still need to protest,” she added, Israeli flag in hand.

About a dozen people, ringed by police protection and heckled by the anti-judicial overhaul majority near the Knesset, held a counter-demonstration across the street from the masses.

“The High Court of Justice doesn’t help us, it tramples us,” said one of the protesters into a loudspeaker. “It destroys our homes,” he added, apparently referencing court rulings authorizing the demolition of illegally built homes in the West Bank.

“The High Court is a dictatorship. It doesn’t represent our values.”

Yohanan Ittach, one of the thousands heading to a protest outside the Knesset against the government’s judicial overhaul, at Jerusalem’s train station on February 20, 2023. (Carrie Keller-Lynn/Times of Israel)

Aharon, 37, who came from Tel Aviv to join the pro-overhaul rally, said: “Since the judicial revolution [in the 1990s], when the High Court of Justice gave itself the right to act according to a constitution it had defined for itself, it made itself the unelected sovereign ruler of this country.”

On Monday morning, a debate at the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee set the stage for the tempestuous day. Lawmakers engaged once again in the shouting matches, recriminations, slurs and general incivility that have become a hallmark of the committee’s proceedings in recent weeks as it blitzes through the various elements of the judicial overhaul package.

Committee chair MK Simcha Rothman — followed later by his deputy, Likud MK Hanoch Milwidsky — ejected numerous lawmakers from the hearing during the course of the ill-tempered debate, including Hadash MK Ofer Cassif, who labeled Likud MK Ariel Kallner “a terrorist” after Kallner branded Cassif “an antisemite.”

Rothman confirmed that a clause in the judicial overhaul bills would stipulate that the High Court of Justice would only be empowered to strike down Knesset legislation if the law in question “clearly” violates an order “entrenched” in a Basic Law. The legal adviser to the committee, Gur Bligh, warned that this would leave some basic rights unprotected, including equality and freedom of speech, as these are not specifically anchored in any Basic Law.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, left, leads a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 20, 2023. At right is the committee’s legal adviser Gur Bligh. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier in the committee hearing, Likud’s MK Tally Gotliv, whose home had been barricaded by protesters earlier Monday morning, took the demonstrators to task.

“These are animals! Predators!” she screamed. “You can’t come to the home of a person and tell me I can’t leave the house — that’s the height of anarchy. You will not harm the right to privacy in the name of a protest.”

Opposition members attending the committee session joined the condemnations of those who tried to prevent Gotliv — who has been one of the most outspoken proponents of the judicial overhaul plan — from leaving her home.

One of the first to condemn the protesters was Lapid, the opposition chief and a leading figure in the protest movement, who said, “I vigorously condemn the siege of MK Tally Gotliv, whose daughter has special needs, and the fact that [the protesters] didn’t let her through to take the girl to school.

“This is not our way,” continued Lapid, whose daughter, like Gotliv’s, has autism.

MK Tally Gotliv attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu also assailed the demonstrators. “When protesters prevent public representatives from coming to the Knesset to vote and make an autistic girl miserable, that isn’t a legitimate protest,” he said in a statement.

“The protesters who preach about democracy are the ones ending democracy by preventing public representatives from realizing a basic right in a democracy — voting,” Netanyahu added. “I call on the police to act immediately to allow all Knesset members to come to parliament.”

Protesters also blocked the entrances to the homes of Rothman — a key architect of the plan and a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party — and Education Minister Yoav Kisch of Netanyahu’s Likud.

Eight people were detained by police outside the right-wing lawmakers’ homes.

The main protest outside the Knesset was to be followed by a candle-lit march from Agranat Square, with nearby roads expected to be closed off.

 

Meanwhile, Lapid warned at his Yesh Atid faction meeting that Israel will take its first steps toward becoming an undemocratic state if the first part of the government’s radical legal overhaul program were to be approved, as expected, later in the day.

“The government is bringing to a vote two laws that annul democracy in Israel. Every effort to bring about dialogue by President Herzog, the opposition, civil society, even the Americans, has been met with total refusal,” Lapid lamented, branding calls by government officials for dialogue “lies.”

Yesh Atid MK Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lapid called Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman — the architects of the legal reforms — “unparalleled extremists” who are leading the country to “economic calamity, security calamity, and a calamity for the unity of the Jewish people.”

Lapid said the popular protest movement will prevail, and that the government “cannot ignore it.”

At his own faction meeting, National Unity leader Benny Gantz said, “the founders [of Israel] did not imagine a regime that is undemocratic. They knew democracy is not just counting votes but listening to voters. Today, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you are not listening. You are working against the will of the people, against the foundations of our country… The 2023 coalition is against the Declaration of Independence.”

Recent polls have shown a majority of the public, including many right-wing voters, is opposed to the legislation moving forward in its current form.

National Unity leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz said there is “no reason for dialogue when they are pushing forward with the legislation,” but that if the process were frozen “we could come to understandings.”

“Passing it in its first reading is like cocking the gun and putting a bullet in the chamber, and I won’t negotiate under such circumstances,” he insisted.

Nonetheless, Ynet reported Monday that officials in President Isaac Herzog’s office were optimistic that a compromise could be reached between the coalition and the opposition.

An unidentified source told the outlet that “the message being disseminated is that there is no dialogue, but behind the scenes, there are those who are working on an agreeable framework.”

The source said the plan being hammered out is based on the principles laid down by Herzog last week in a primetime address to the nation urging a compromise be reached to heal the growing societal divisions over the proposed overhaul. Herzog offered his official residence in Jerusalem as neutral ground for all sides to meet and hold negotiations.

Israelis hold signs and wave the Israeli flag as they walk in the streets of Tel Aviv, protesting the government’s planned judicial overhaul on February 20, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A broad and vocal 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.

Meanwhile, 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.

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