Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied against government plans to shake up the judicial system outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem Monday, the evening before a highly charged hearing that could set up an unprecedented clash between the courts and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
The protest came as political tensions have flared ahead of Tuesday’s High Court hearing, in which a full panel of 15 judges, a first, will hear petitions against the reasonableness law curbing the top court’s power to exercise judicial review over government decisions and appointments.
Proponents of the coalition’s proposals for weakening the judiciary have warned the justices against invalidating the law, and last week staged a similar yet smaller protest outside the court, with the opposing sides seeking to turn out their backers in demonstrations of support ahead of the hearing.
“Just as the High Court defends Israeli citizens, we are here to defend the High Court,” former foreign minister Tzipi Livni told the crowd at Monday’s rally.
Protesters blew horns and vuvuzelas, and held up signs decrying the overhaul, many of them featuring raised fists and calls for the protection of human rights, one of the key tenets that government opponents say will be put at risk if the court’s oversight powers are curtailed.
There were no official turnout figures for Monday’s protest. Channel 13 news reported 47,000 attended, citing an estimate from the Crowd Solutions firm, about half the estimated turnout for weekly protests in liberal bastion Tel Aviv.
Police closed a number of roads in the area ahead of the rally, snarling traffic around the court, which is located near the entrance to Jerusalem.
Video showing a small group of protesters briefly blocking cars on the Begin highway, a major traffic artery in Jerusalem that includes an exit near the Supreme Court building.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) September 11, 2023
Protesters later marched approximately two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the Supreme Court to Netanyahu’s apartment on the capital’s Azza Street, where the rally was expected to continue.
There was no immediate word from police on arrests or disturbances.
Livni, one of several speakers who addressed the demonstration, insisted the protesters did not gather outside the court in an effort to sway the judges, “but to strengthen them so they can rule unbiasedly.”
“Whoever thinks that words and formulations will take us back home is mistaken. We are after an earthquake; plaster and paint will not fix the cracks,” she said.
Smaller demonstrations were held at several other sites around the country, including in the central cities of Rehovot and Herzliya.
Protesters also gathered against outside the Modiin home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, after an unruly demonstration there in the morning.
The rally came several days after a demonstration in support of the government managed to draw some 10,000 to the same area.
Amit Becher, head of the Israel Bar Association, told the Jerusalem rally on Monday that the hearing the next day was not just about the reasonableness law.
“What is on the agenda tomorrow is no less than an all-encompassing fight for our existence as a democratic state and for our existence as a country of laws,” he said.
The lawyer argued that High Court of Justice has the authority to nullify the reasonableness law, which was approved as an amendment to one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. The laws are passed through the same process in the Knesset as regular pieces of legislation.
Overhaul supporters have asserted the court is not empowered to strike down Basic Laws, which it has never done, warning of a constitutional crisis, in the event that the judges were to do so.
Netanyahu and other members of his government have been noncommittal on whether they will respect a High Court ruling against the reasonableness law, with several suggesting they would not while three ministers said Sunday that decisions by the court must be adhered to.
Tuesday’s hearing will see both sides argue their case before the 15 judges. No ruling is expected for several weeks or possibly months, but the session will be closely watched in Israel, with the justices’ questions offering a hint of what direction they may be leaning.
As the hearing loomed, Netanyahu said Monday that he was working to “exhaust every possibility” to reach a broad agreement regarding the overhaul plans, but faced pushback from both hardline members of his government and opposition figures who do not believe his coalition allies will let him agree to any true compromise.
His statement in support of the compromise came days before he was set to fly to the US, where he will meet with President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations general Assembly.
In a preview of Israeli ex-pat protests that may await him there, an anti-overhaul group said they projected a message reading “Don’t believe crime minister Netanyahu. Protect Israeli democracy” onto the UN Headquarters building in New York.
Activists said the message was projected onto the building for about 30 minutes on a recent night. Images released by protesters showed the message clearly visible on the skyline and from FDR Drive, a major road along the east side of Manhattan.
Anti-overhaul activists in New York project a message protesting Netanyahu's visit to the UN next week, onto the side of UN Headquarters pic.twitter.com/H2mT5bZ4HE
— Luke Tress (@luketress) September 11, 2023
Biden has pressed Netanyahu to seek compromise on the reforms and some US officials have expressed concerns about moves that may weaken the judiciary’s independence.
The “reasonableness” law, passed in the Knesset in July, prohibits the courts from reviewing government action using the judicial standard of reasonableness, whereby it can determine that a decision was invalid because it was made without properly assessing key considerations, or while using improper considerations.
Opponents of the law argue that it could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the reasonableness standard, it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials.
Ministers and coalition MKs have argued that the law is necessary to stop the High Court from asserting its own worldview on government decisions and actions, and have said that the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials will still be subject to other tools in administrative law.
The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.