Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied Saturday for a fifth week in a row to protest the government’s push to radically shakeup the judicial system.
Along with the main protests in Tel Aviv, smaller demonstrations were held in Jerusalem, Haifa and a number of other cities.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid attended the rally in Haifa, saying the protesters had come “to save the country.”
“We will fight here in the streets, we will fight in the Knesset, we will fight in the courts, we will save our country, because we refuse to live in an undemocratic country,” Lapid said.
In Tel Aviv, Mayor Ron Huldai told the crowd that “if words end, the actions will begin.”
“We are fighting for our home… a Zionist, Jewish, and democratic state. We fight for our basic beliefs,” he said
“This is an opportunity to reach broad agreements, and if the words end, the actions will begin. We will not stop at public squares, we will not be indifferent, we will not react with acceptance,” Huldai added.
Former police commissioner Roni Alsheich also addressed the protesters in Tel Aviv, strongly denouncing the proposals being advanced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to shake up the judiciary, which include severely curbing the High Court of Justice’s judicial review powers and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.
“The proposal amounts to a coup d’etat, no less than that,” Alsheich said. “As an observant [Jew], I must say that there is also nothing Jewish in what is being proposed.”
“Restraining power is a basic and deep Jewish value that must not be abandoned,” he added.
“I feel ashamed, as a believing and observant Jew, by the behavior of the politicians. I hear repeated claims that the religious community has become the ‘shield of public corruption.’”
Some 40,000 people attended the rallies in Tel Aviv, according to the Haaretz daily. Two weeks ago some 100,000 protesters in the coastal city.
The newspaper estimated Saturday’s nationwide turnout at 60,000, with at least 10,000 rallying in Haifa, 2,000 in Jerusalem, 2,000 in Ra’anana, and another 2,000 in Kfar Saba.
At the Jerusalem demonstration, protesters stood bundled up, umbrellas up against the steady drizzle, along with Israeli flags and signs.
The protest began with chants and speeches followed by the weekly march to nearby Paris Square, close to the prime minister’s official residence.
Speakers included Hebrew University law professor Yoav Dotan, who spoke against the current government’s attempts to create “an all-out assault” on the police, army, and government ministries.
“The most important thing we can do is to be here,” said Dotan. “To win this battle, we’ll win it by being here — the thousands who are already here — and bringing the thousands more who feel the same way. We need half a million in the streets.”
Nazier Magally, head of research at think-tank Shaharit, acknowledged that not many Arabic speakers like him were in the crowd.
“Not many Arabs come out, they don’t think they are part of this,” said Magally. “They have criticisms of the legal system, and they should take responsibility because there’s no question there’s what to correct in this system.”
The proposals presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including Supreme Court justices; severely limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down legislation; and allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs.
Critics have staged a series of large protests saying the changes will gut the courts, leave minority rights unprotected and concentrate almost unlimited power in the hands of the ruling coalition. Proponents say the current system gives unelected judges and lawyers too much power over elected officials.
Despite objections by the attorney general, the Supreme Court chief justice and numerous other jurists, economists, businesspeople, academics, tech leaders and more, the government has vowed to press forward with its legislative plans. The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee is set to continue its work on the bills next week. According to Channel 12, coalition officials hope to bring them to a first plenum vote by the end of February.
On Saturday, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon specifically warned against the coalition’s proposal to prevent the High Court from using a test of “reasonableness” against which to judge government decisions.
“The motivation is unrestrained power and the result will be unrestrained power,” he was quoted as saying by Haaretz.
In a position paper publicized on Thursday, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said the government’s plans would give it virtually unrestrained power, without providing any institutional protections for individual rights or for Israel’s democratic character. In their current form, Baharav-Miara is not expected to defend the plans at the High Court of Justice if and when petitions are filed against them.