Tens of thousands of people demonstrated nationwide against the government’s judicial overhaul plan for the 21st week on Saturday night, days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the legislation would return to the agenda following the recent passage of the contentious state budget.
After several weeks of demonstrations that highlighted issues beyond the overhaul itself, including the budget and equality, protest organizers returned to focusing on the coalition’s desire to radically curb the High Court of Justice’s power.
Protests were staged across the country, with the main demonstration taking place on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv. Channels 12 and 13 reported that some 80,000 were at the rally. That turnout was similar to last week, whereas previous demonstrations have drawn twice and thrice that number of participants.
Organizers later said there were 150,000 at the Tel Aviv rally, part of a total of 235,000 nationwide.
Speakers at the Kaplan event included former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, protest leader Shikma Bressler and Shay Bramson of Havruta, an organization that works with religiously-observant members of the LGBTQ+ community. Speeches began after 8:30 p.m. to allow Shabbat observers to participate.
Thousands also participated in rallies in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Ra’anana, Kfar Saba, Netanya, Hod Hasharon, Ness Ziona, Rehovot, Zichron Yaakov, Karmiel and Karkur.
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The legislation has been frozen since late March, with Netanyahu saying he was giving a chance for talks with the opposition, under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, to try to find a broadly-accepted compromise for judicial reform. But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.
Netanyahu said early Wednesday that “of course” the overhaul was back on the agenda. Later that same day, he added, however: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”
Labor chair Merav Michaeli was the main speaker at the Karkur rally, attended by roughly 2,000 people, according to the Ynet news site. Toward the end of her remarks, some members of the crowd began to heckle Michaeli, blaming her for Labor’s deterioration in the polls, with many surveys showing it would not win any Knesset seats if elections were held today.
Protest organizers later apologized to her for the disruption, and Michaeli issued a statement saying she remained committed to the political path she has chosen.
Addressing the rally in Ness Ziona, former IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz claimed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to “establish a dictatorship” in Israel. “We will not allow it to happen.”
In Tel Aviv, Ya’alon told protesters that the budget approved by the Knesset this week was “a budget for a dictatorship.”
“We are here to say in a loud and clear voice: Israel won’t be a dictatorship, only a democracy. We won’t forget your repeated lies and the venomous machine you built,” he said.
In Beersheba, Limor Livnat, a former Likud education minister, praised protesters for rallying against the “arrogant, opaque and dangerous” government and its plans.
“There were those that thought that it was over, that we won, but three days ago, a second after the budget passed, Netanyahu emphatically stated that what he calls the ‘judicial reform’ will return. We can’t let our guard down,” she said.
“They call me a leftist and a traitor and swear at me. Likud is no longer my home.”
The opposition’s National Unity party leader Benny Gantz told protesters in Hod Hasharon that they had managed to “stop Israel’s gallop to disaster.”
“We will do everything in order to reach agreements while protecting our principles in order to preserve Israeli democracy,” he said.
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At the Haifa protest, attended by several thousand, one participant told the Haaretz daily that a police officer ordered her to take down her sign, which had a drawing of a Palestinian flag on it. Palestinian flags are not illegal but police are given broad discretion to remove them at protests. The coalition is also seeking to advance legislation that would ban Palestinian flags.
In an interview with Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” Saturday, Gadi Eisenkot, a former IDF chief of staff and a senior member of National Unity, praised Herzog’s efforts in compromise talks he is leading, but said the lack of progress demanded a new way forward.
“My personal position is that after two months of negotiations, we need to do what is best for the State of Israel, and that is take away the gun from the table for at least one year,” he said, meaning the legislation plans should be paused for that period.
Eisenkot outlined a process he said should start from June 15, including the appointment of “an agreed upon public committee” to come up with a reform deal within a year’s time.
The centerpiece of the overhaul is legislation that would give governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments in Israel, by giving the coalition an in-built majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.
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 was last seen before the legislation was frozen in late March to make way for compromise talks.
Yesh Atid announced it will demand that the Judicial Selection Committee convene by the end of June and that parties select their representatives on the panel by June 15, setting a de facto deadline for compromise talks. The party said that MK Karine Elharrar will be their choice as the opposition representative on the panel.
Meanwhile, protest leaders on Friday called on New York City’s Celebrate Israel Parade, set to take place June 4, to cancel the participation of Israeli government ministers.
Hundreds of protesters gathered near Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence to highlight the apparently faltering relationship with the US.
Demonstrators waved Israeli and US flags while charging that Netanyahu is distancing the country’s top ally even as arch-foe Iran rushes to obtain nuclear weapons.
Unusually, Washington has yet to invite Netanyahu for an official visit since he formed his coalition of right-wing, religious and far-right parties at the end of last year. The US has raised concerns over comments by far-right elements of the government and over the coalition’s planned overhaul of the judiciary.
Minor scuffles broke out between police and demonstrators.
The Israel Police said it had pushed back the several hundred protesters after they came within the buffer zone around the residence on the capital’s Gaza Street and ignored instructions to clear the road. Two protesters were detained and taken for questioning.
While the demonstrators have so far focused on opposing the government’s planned overhaul, they have also turned attention in recent weeks to the huge allocations of money given to coalition parties as part of the latest budget.
Thousands rallied in Jerusalem on Tuesday as the Knesset convened to vote on the budget, with protesters accusing the government of “looting” the state’s money in an attempt to keep his coalition together.
Last week, a key architect of the judicial plans said the coalition will go back to advancing bills in the package during the current Knesset term, even if no agreements are reached in the compromise talks.
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, the chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, told Channel 12 that one such law could be the highly divisive bill to grant coalition politicians almost exclusive control over appointing judges.
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.
According to an unsourced Wednesday report, Netanyahu will pursue shakeups of the State Attorney’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office if his coalition’s negotiations with the opposition on judicial reform fall apart.