Demonstrations against the government’s judicial overhaul entered their 20th week on Saturday night, as compromise talks between the coalition and opposition remained stalled and the government’s opponents and demonstrators turned much of their focus to lambasting the government’s looming state budget, alleging that it “plunders the public coffers.”
Rallies were held in about 150 locations, a week after the protests were downsized due to the threat of rocket fire from Gaza as Israel battled the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.
Hebrew media estimated that between 90,000 and 100,000 attended the main rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, and that the total figure was around 150,000 nationwide — markedly down from before the fighting, which had been around 200,000-300,000. Protest organizers claimed far bigger numbers for Saturday, saying 135,000 had protested in Tel Aviv and another 150,000 in the rest of the country.
Many of the protesters urged opposition leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Benny Gantz’s National Unity to walk away from compromise talks with the coalition, which have been taking place since the beginning of last month at President Isaac Herzog’s official residence in Jerusalem. Both opposition parties insisted this week that there had been no breakthroughs in the talks, contradicting reports of progress in several Hebrew media outlets.
According to the Ynet news site, some 10,000 people rallied in Netanya, protests in Herzliya, Kfar Saba and Ra’anana were attended by around 8,000 each, and some 2,000 showed up in Beersheba and in Hod HaSharon. Thousands also demonstrated near the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid spoke at the rally in Herzliya, issuing an apparent ultimatum regarding the ongoing compromise talks.
“Next month, the Knesset must choose its representatives in the Judicial Selection Committee — including the opposition representative — convene the committee immediately and start working in accordance with the rules that were in place throughout the year. Without this, the entire dialogue is a scam, and we won’t lend our hand to a scam,” he charged.
“The government needs to take all the laws off the Knesset’s table and they must understand — there will be no situation in which the coalition appoints its own judges,” he added.
עכשיו בקפלן תל אביב
שבוע 20 למחאה
נלחמים על הדמוקרטיה-
קרדיט צילום שב״פ pic.twitter.com/1LkIbqenyg
— הדר סגל Hadar Segal ✊???????? (@hadarse) May 20, 2023
The bill to change the panel’s makeup has arguably been the hardest to find a compromise on. The government wants to bring the selection of most judges — including Supreme Court justices — under its complete control, while the opposition rejects this out of hand and wants the current system, which features a mutual veto for the coalition and for judiciary representatives, to remain in place. The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice. However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public unrest, the likes of which were last seen before the legislation was frozen in late March.
The coalition has recently signaled its intention to possibly appoint two lawmakers from the coalition to the committee, while it is customary — though not mandatory — to tap one each from the coalition and opposition.
While the demonstrators have so far focused on opposing the government’s planned overhaul, they have now also turned their attention to the huge allocations of money given to coalition parties as part of the latest budget. The major issues targeted by government critics were the approval of NIS 13.7 billion ($4 billion) in discretionary funds, mostly for the ultra-Orthodox community, and a controversial planned municipal tax fund that would take money from richer towns and redistribute it to poorer ones.
Some 15,000 protested in Haifa, where former Likud minister Limor Livnat said that even though she remains a right-wing ideologue, Netanyahu’s loyalists are dismissing her as a “leftist” and casting her as a traitor “because they have sworn allegiance to one man.”
“[It’s] a personality cult. I’m not there. Netanyahu, with who I worked for many long years, is no longer the same person,” she added.
The demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Haifa featured large banners that read: “The plundering government.”
כ- 130 אלף מפגינים רק בקפלן,
אמא שלכם דועכת, לא המחאה. pic.twitter.com/FC892FHEtL
— Avi Edelson (@AviEdelson1) May 20, 2023
Protest groups said this “refers to the government’s attempt to give 14 billion shekels of taxpayer money to the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist settler parties.”
The government’s plans to allocate large sums of money to the ultra-Orthodox community and other coalition parties as part of the trillion-shekel 2023-2024 state budget, which must be passed by May 29, have also drawn criticism from within the Finance Ministry for being unsustainable in the long term.
Shaul Meridor, who headed the Finance Ministry’s Budgets Department from 2017 until 2020, when he resigned in protest of the Likud government’s economic policies, took aim at the current looming state budget during the Tel Aviv rally, accusing the government of advancing an “extremist agenda” and ignoring professionals’ opinions and warnings.
“The government is passing a budget that clearly reflects its priorities — yeshivas are favored over employment, ignorance and food stamps are favored over education, gas is subsidized instead of dealing with the cost of living,” he said.
He said that even if the government “tramples over another sacred value or transfers more of the money we pay to destroy Israel’s economy,” the protesters “will be here to fix the destruction they will leave.”
Lapid also railed against the state budget during his speech in Herzliya, calling it “a robbery.”
“They are robbing our children of their future, and they are doing it with our money. They are creating an entire generation here that does not serve in the army, does not study a profession, does not work, does not pay taxes,” he said, referring to the ultra-Orthodox community.
“It doesn’t have to be that way. We are standing here because it is possible otherwise. We want a government that represents the sane majority, not the extremists,” Lapid added.
Earlier, in an interview with Channel 12 news, Lapid accused the government of “using our money to destroy our children’s future,” adding that “in the long run, our country can’t survive this. They’ll pay billions upon billions to a growing community that doesn’t study mathematics, English or computers and doesn’t work — and our children will need to support children that don’t work.”
In contrast, organizers of the Jerusalem protest stressed that it was directed against the government’s “harmful moves” and didn’t feature “hate against any community in our Israeli home — not the Haredi, nor the secular or Arab [communities].”
In his TV interview, Lapid also pushed back against criticism by protesters of his participation in the overhaul compromise talks.
“I’m the guy who refused time after time to enter a Netanyahu government,” he said. “It’s always difficult to do deals with him, it’s a problem of trust.”
At a rally in Petah Tikva, Gantz praised protesters who for 20 weeks “have been delivering to us the best civics lesson possible: The vote begins in the polling station, but doesn’t end there.”
He said Netanyahu was “trying to erase the democratic and liberal values on which the State of Israel is founded,” vowing not to enable that. He added that he felt “great pride to see the public in the streets.”
Protest organizers said earlier in the day that “the government’s plan to plunder the public treasury in favor of political corruption, rather than investing in the welfare of citizens, is a decisive step towards transforming Israel into a dictatorial regime.”
“Netanyahu continues to buy time through deceptive negotiations while he gives 14 billion dollars of taxpayers’ money to his political allies. These corrupt actions serve as a means to facilitate the implementation of dictatorial laws,” they said. “The negotiations allow Netanyahu to continue weakening the foundations of democracy. We call upon opposition leader Lapid and MK Gantz to withdraw from these deceptive negotiations immediately.”
Anti-government protesters have gathered around the country every Saturday night for the past 20 weeks since the government announced its plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Though the plan is now paused as the coalition and opposition hold negotiations for a potential compromise reform plan, many in the coalition have warned they could push forward with the effort to curb the courts, and weekly rallies have continued.
Up until March, the coalition moved at high speed with legislation that will bring most judicial appointments under government control and curb the oversight powers of the High Court of Justice.
Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.
Since Netanyahu froze the judicial overhaul legislation on March 28 and the Knesset returned from its Passover recess, the government has channeled all its efforts into passing the state budget, which if not passed in the next nine days will automatically trigger the collapse of the government and snap elections.
Once the budget is approved, it appears likely that the coalition will return its focus to its judicial overhaul agenda.
Last week’s protests were muted because some of the organizers called off their support due to the threat of rockets from Gaza during fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group. Some protesters showed up anyway, with several hundred gathering in Tel Aviv. Around 5,000 marched in Haifa, a northern city farther from the Gaza threat.
Netanyahu has seen a bump in public support since the Gaza operation, after his ratings plummeted during his first four months in office, apparently due to public opposition to the judicial overhaul and other policies.