10th week of mass protests nationwide, with overhaul laws potentially only days away

Rallies across Israel as coalition scheduled to drive contentious bills through committee this week, despite Herzog plea for ‘disastrous’ legislation to be abandoned immediately

Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government's judicial overhaul moves, in Tel Aviv on March 4, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Tens of thousands of Israelis protest against the government's judicial overhaul moves, in Tel Aviv on March 4, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of protesters were set to rally Saturday evening across the country in the tenth consecutive week of demonstrations against the government’s efforts to radically overhaul the judicial system.

The protests will be held as the coalition readies to charge full steam ahead from Sunday with its highly contentious remaking of the judiciary, thus far rejecting pleas, including from the president, to scrap its current legislation and instead patiently negotiate a compromise.

Saturday’s main protest was set to begin at Tel Aviv’s Habima at 6 p.m. with a march toward the central gathering at Kaplan Street, outside the government offices.

Police said they would close off a number of Tel Aviv streets from late afternoon.

Smaller rallies are being held in at least 95 different locations across the country, including in Jerusalem, Ashdod, Haifa, Beersheba, Efrat, Modi’in, Netanya, Kfar Saba, Yavne, Herzliya, Beit Shemesh and Bat Yam.

The central demonstration will take place under the command of Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed after Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara instructed that his removal from his position by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai be frozen immediately, questioning the legality of a decision that was widely seen as politically motivated.

A demonstrator waves the Israeli flag seated on a highway while flanked by border police during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Far-right minister Ben Gvir announced on Thursday that Eshed, believed to harbor ambitions to lead the force, would be transferred to head the police’s Training Department, based on a recommendation by Shabtai.

Hebrew-language media indicated Ben Gvir had raged about Eshed’s ostensibly mild response to anti-government protests.

Ben Gvir, who has multiple past convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and for incitement to racism, has repeatedly called the protesters “anarchists” and called for police to use more force.

Dozens rallied outside Eshed’s home on Friday to lend their support to the commander who has reportedly told Shabtai that he was “unfit” to lead the police.

The nationwide rallies were to be held as the coalition prepared core elements of its highly contentious judicial overhaul program for final Knesset readings next week.

Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Chairman MK Simcha Rothman has scheduled hearings on dramatic overhaul legislation every day from Sunday to Wednesday.

If enacted, the legislation will give the government full control over judicial appointments and ban the High Court of Justice from reviewing Basic Laws, as a central element of the coalition’s wide-ranging move to curb the judiciary and centralize almost all power in the hands of the governing majority.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman speaking with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a debate in the Knesset plenum, March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Votes to approve the legislation in committee could be scheduled whenever Rothman decides. The bills will then move to the Knesset plenum for its final two votes sometime after a 48-hour break.

Rothman announced next week’s committee sessions a day after President Isaac Herzog said he was in the final stages of forming a compromise proposal for judicial reform after consultations with academics and civil society organizations on both sides of the ideological spectrum.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have refused to join the talks, with the opposition demanding the legislation first be frozen and the coalition rejecting any preconditions.

The legislative blitz comes despite Herzog on Thursday night denouncing the current package as “oppressive” and harmful to democracy, and demanding it be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform.

President Isaac Herzog gives a primetime speech pleading for compromise on the judicial overhaul plan, on March 9, 2023. (Haim Zach/GPO)

In a special address to the nation delivered in stark and grave tones, the president said the national crisis over the coalition’s effort to weaken the judiciary was “a disaster” and “a nightmare.”

He insisted it was the responsibility of “the leaders of the state” in the government to put aside the breakneck legislative charge lest the country descends into a societal and constitutional abyss.

Herzog’s forceful speech marked the first time he had openly spoken out against one political bloc during the current political crisis, and, like the Knesset opposition parties, unambiguously opposed the government’s bills as anti-democratic.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned overhaul of the legal system, outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Also Thursday, protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul plans staged an unprecedented day of protests and disruption, blocking central Israel’s key Ayalon Highway for some two hours and gumming up roads to Ben Gurion Airport alongside rallies, strikes, blockages and other disruptive activities throughout the country, calling it a “day of resistance.”

The mass demonstrations and dissent gave rise to some limited clashes with police as authorities struggled to contain the various events.

In one clip from Tel Aviv, police were seen putting a protester in a chokehold and wrestling him to the ground as others surrounded them chanting “Shame!” It was unclear what triggered the incident.

Police scuffle with protesters during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Thursday morning also saw numerous protests outside schools, with students and parents joining together to demonstrate, and a group of naval reservists blocked marine traffic at Haifa Port, saying that “in a dictatorship, the sea is closed.”

Roads were blocked around Ben Gurion Airport throughout the morning and afternoon as protesters in cars sought to make it difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fly to Italy, where he was scheduled to hold a three-day official visit. Netanyahu and his wife eventually arrived at the airport via helicopter before departing.

The protests also impacted the schedule of United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to Israel. Austin was initially slated to arrive in Israel on Wednesday. Instead, he arrived Thursday and met with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at Israel Aerospace Industries headquarters, adjacent to the airport.

Protesters block the entrance roads at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, March 9, 2023 (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Speaking at a press conference after meeting Gallant, Austin said Israel and the US “are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and a strong judiciary.”

“An independent judicial system is an important part of democracy. A broad consensus must be achieved for fundamental changes in the judicial system in order for them to remain sustainable,” he added.

The legislative plans by the right-religious government, Israel’s most hardline to date, have sparked mass public protests in Israel for over two months, as well as fierce backlash from opposition politicians and dire warnings from economists, business leaders, legal experts and security officials.

Critics of the government’s divisive judicial overhaul have said the coalition’s proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters have called it a much-needed reform to rein in an “activist” court.

A number of polls have indicated the legislation is broadly unpopular with the public.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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