Tens of thousands expected at Tel Aviv protest against immunity push for PM
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Blue and White MK blasts 'Arab-free' demonstration

Tens of thousands expected at Tel Aviv protest against immunity push for PM

Opposition parties join forces for what they hope will be a major Saturday night rally; Blue and White official: ‘We won’t let up until we save democracy’

File: Israelis protest against goverment corruption and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
File: Israelis protest against goverment corruption and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on March 2, 2019 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of people are expected to demonstrate in Tel Aviv Saturday night against attempts to pass legislation to protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from criminal prosecution and what are seen as wider legislative threats to Israeli democratic checks and balances.

Center-left opposition parties Blue and White, Labor and Meretz are organizing the protest, in cooperation with several civil society groups, and are holding it under the banner “Stopping the Immunity Law — A Defensive Shield for Democracy.”

The rally will start at 8:30 p.m. at the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum. Parties are making considerable efforts to bring out protesters, with paid advertising and a social media campaign, and are planning to bus in activists from across the country.

The protest comes amid reported plans by Likud lawmakers and Netanyahu to pass legislation granting the premier immunity in multiple corruption cases — and additional legislation weakening the High Court of Justice so that it won’t have the power to overturn the laws protecting him.

Pending a hearing, Netanyahu is facing indictment for fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one of them.

“We will not allow Netanyahu to drag Israel to dangerous Turkey-style legislation, where the ruler is above the law,” the demonstration’s Facebook page declared.

Senior Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah said ahead of the protest: “We will fight and we won’t let up until we save democracy, until we save Israel… the entire opposition will be united in this.”

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah attends a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The opposition is hoping to create public pressure on MKs from Likud and other prospective coalition parties who they believe are uneasy with supporting such legislation, or who have in the past stated that they would oppose such a move.

Shelah said there were around 20 MKs in the prospective coalition who he believed could be influenced. “We [must] and can create a dilemma for them, make clear to them the public and personal price they will pay,” he said.

With Netanyahu currently struggling to form a 61-member majority coalition out of the 120 MKs, any single vote against an immunity push could be decisive.

Labor MK Itzik Shmuli. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Labor’s MK Itzik Shmuli said at a political panel in Yehud on Saturday: “Netanyahu is determined to demolish the rule of law… We cannot let it happen and we will not let it happen. He’s waging war on our home and he’ll get it — in the Knesset and in the streets.”

MK Zvi Hauser of Blue and White stated that everyone must be equal before the law. “It was obvious to everyone before Netanyahu put it into question,” he said.

In recent days Blue and White activists have demonstrated outside the homes of several Likud MKs including Tzachi Hanegbi, Avi Dichter, Gilad Erdan and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

Arab-majority faction Hadash-Ta’al has said its activists will also take part. However leader Ayman Odeh will not speak. According to Haaretz, Odeh was invited to give a speech, but by the time he gave a positive response was told it was too late and that the list of speakers had already been finalized. Some in the party have accused Blue and White of rebuffing Odeh for political reasons.

Joint (Arab) List MK Ayman Odeh, seen during a vote on the bill that would allow to suspend a parliament member, in the assembly hall of the Israeli parliament on March 28, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ra’am-Balad, the Knesset’s other Arab faction, said it had not been invited to participate in the rally.

Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich appeared to criticize her own party’s leaders for the absence of Arab leadership at the protest.

“An Arab-free demonstration is a capitulation to racism and incitement from the right,” she wrote on Twitter. “what have you achieved? Will right-wing protesters come in droves because you’ve pushed Arabs away? A moral and political mistake.”

The immunity push has met with harsh criticism and great alarm by justice officials, top attorneys, retired judges, and former Likud officials.

On Friday Channel 13 news quoted unnamed Supreme Court justices as saying the court could take “extreme steps” in order to block legislative proposals to curtail the court’s powers.

“The immunity bill alongside the override clause is unbelievable. We won’t hesitate to take harsh and extreme steps because history will judge us,” the sources said. The reference to the “immunity bill” relates to indications that Netanyahu is considering amending current legislation to make it easier for him to obtain immunity from prosecution in the three corruption cases against him; the reference to the “override clause” relates to his reported plans to neuter the Supreme Court by reversing its right to overturn parliamentary legislation and decisions it regards as unconstitutional.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem on May 19, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/ Various Sources/ AFP)

The passage of such an “override clause” would mark what has been called the greatest constitutional change in Israeli history, with vast potential impact on the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy, denying the courts the capacity to protect Israeli minorities and uphold core human rights. It would also, not incidentally, mean the court could not reverse Knesset-approved immunity for Netanyahu.

The TV report on Friday did not specify whether all of the judges on the court share the view that “extreme steps” are necessary, nor which of them took part in the conversations. It also did not specify what the “extreme steps” might be.

A spokesperson for the courts told the network that if the comments were made, they represented the view only of the individual or individuals who made them.

Netanyahu’s Likud party denied the prime minister was seeking “to destroy” the court.

“It is hard to believe that anyone takes seriously the idea the prime minister wants to destroy the Supreme Court,” the party was quoted saying in response.

“There is a huge difference between reasonable reforms to return the balance [between the legislative and judicial branches] and empty claims about an intention to destroy one of the three foundational authorities of democracy,” it added.

In February, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu, pending a hearing, in three cases, dubbed by police 1000, 2000 and 4000. Charges include fraud and breach of trust in all three cases, and bribery in one of them. The prime minister denies all the allegations.

Full text: The criminal allegations against Netanyahu, as set out by Israel’s AG

The prime minister denies any wrongdoing, and says his legal difficulties are the result of a witch hunt by the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution, headed by a weak attorney general, aimed at ousting him.

Prior to the April 9 elections, Netanyahu gave mixed signals when asked whether he would seek to evade prosecution by means of Knesset legislation to guarantee himself immunity and to prevent the High Court from overturning that immunity. On one occasion, in a late March television interview, he dismissed the idea but then backtracked.

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