Protesters vow to continue as coalition lawmakers dismiss massive Tel Aviv rally

Organizers say ‘we’ve only just begun’ after 80,000 demonstrate against government’s judicial remake; Netanyahu allies downplay protests, accuse media of bias

Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Protesters vowed to continue holding rallies against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government after a massive demonstration in Tel Aviv on Saturday night.

At least 80,000 people gathered at the city’s Habima Square despite pouring rain to denounce the government’s plans for sweeping changes to Israel’s justice system. Similar, smaller rallies were held in Jerusalem and Haifa.

One of the groups organizing the demonstrations, Crime Minister, said the protests will continue in the coming weeks.

“This will take time. Don’t make any plans for upcoming Saturdays,” the group said after Saturday night’s event. “We’ve only just begun.”

In a message directed at Netanyahu, the group wrote, “Do you really think you will just take apart the justice system to evade prison?”

In addition to Crime Minister, Saturday’s protests were backed by activist groups including Ein Matzav (No Way) and the Black Flags. The three groups and others organized weekly protests demanding Netanyahu’s resignation due to corruption allegations in 2020. Those rallies went on every Saturday night for over six months.

The demonstrations against the new government have also been endorsed by other organizations including the Association for LGBTQ Equality in Israel, the Movement for Quality Government and the Kibbutz Movement.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz, who was defense minister in the previous government, vowed to continue the fight against the judicial overhaul after he attended Saturday’s rally.

“We will continue to act against this regime’s coup and for reforms — but only with wide agreement,” Gantz said.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said, “The rain doesn’t scare us and you certainly don’t either. We will not let you destroy our democracy.”

Former Meretz MK Yair Golan warned that weekly protests “just won’t be enough.”

“We must ratchet things up. Until economic life is paralyzed, until services are not provided, until roads are blocked, Netanyahu’s destructive gang will not understand that we’re serious,” Golan said. “The struggle will be bitter and difficult but with determination, courage and perseverance, we will win. Israel must be saved.”

Israelis protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s political allies brushed off the protests and accused the media of biased coverage.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionism party, said news outlets had neglected protests against the previous government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid.

Those demonstrations did not approach the scale of Saturday night’s massive rally, though.

“During the year of the left-wing government, we protested again and again. The disconnected media never did a build-up for a week for us, didn’t do live coverage,” Smotrich said. “Despite that we took down the government and won the election. The nation is with us. And with that power we will carry out the reforms to the justice system.”

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar said, “The protests are an acceptable expression of democracy, just like democratic elections.”

“Tonight at the protest there were tens of thousands of people. In the elections we had two and half months ago, there were millions,” said Zohar, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party. “We promised the public change, we promised governance, reforms, and we will carry that out.”

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who has vowed to significantly slash funding for the Kan public broadcaster, said coverage of the protest was biased.

“It reflects the will of the editors, the writers and the presenters in the propaganda broadcasts,” he said. “When we were in the streets against the fraud government, in front of the crook’s house, we were at best covered as a comment in the margins.”

Karhi was apparently referring to small rallies outside former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit’s home to protest the state’s three corruption cases against Netanyahu.

Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv, January 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

At Saturday night’s Tel Aviv protest, crowds filled Habima Square and spilled into the surrounding streets. Many demonstrators traveled into Tel Aviv from around the country on hired buses.

Many in the large crowd carried umbrellas, Israeli flags, and placards denouncing the coalition’s plans to hamstring the judiciary. “Fighting for democracy,” declared a large banner at the rear of the elevated stage.

Sheltering from the rain under a tree, Lorna from Tel Aviv said she came to the protest to try to ensure her grandchildren’s future.

“I feel like we are living in the beginnings of a dystopian state,” she said. “I am seeing the end of democracy and I feel personally threatened.”

Reut from Tel Aviv came to the protest as part of a three-generation delegation from her family. “We are starting to not recognize our own country,” she said. “And that’s an understatement.”

In Haifa, hundreds of people gathered at the Horev Center shopping area, while thousands protested outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, bundled in winter coats and hats, waving Israeli flags and placards and calling for President Isaac Herzog to emerge.

“Bougie, wake up, the house is burning,” the demonstrators chanted, referring to the president by his nickname. “Bougie, Bougie, wake up, the public is worth more.”

Israelis protest against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 14, 2023. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Despite police warnings of possible violence and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s call for police to crack down on any unrest, the demonstrations ended largely peacefully, with only a few minor skirmishes between protesters and law enforcement.

The demonstration marked the second week that opponents of Netanyahu’s government took to the streets to protest Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s proposals to shackle and curb Israel’s independent judiciary by severely restricting the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.

Critics of the plans, which include top current and former judicial and legal officials as well as Netanyahu’s political rivals, say Levin’s reforms would put basic civil and minority rights at risk by all but eliminating the top court’s authority to strike down laws and government decisions, and giving the governing majority control of appointing judges — meaning the judiciary could no longer serve as a brake on abuse and excess by the political leadership.

Proponents of the changes argue that the courts have assumed excessive powers and issued rulings that defy the will of the electorate.

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