Some 2,000 people protested in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Saturday night as part of the latest “black flag” demonstration against what they say is an erosion of Israeli democracy under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership. Speakers alleged that the new coalition deal threatens to trample Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws and destroys the authority of the Knesset.
The protesters adhered to social distancing regulations aimed at stemming the coronavirus outbreak, as per Health Ministry guidelines, maintaining two meters between them.
It was the second such protest in less than a week.
Several hundred people also demonstrated in Kiryat Tivon, a suburb of Haifa.
The “black flag” movement’s name comes from demonstrators pinning black flags to their vehicles and homes to symbolize what they believe is a danger to Israel’s democracy posed by Netanyahu’s continued rule.
Protesters urged the Blue and White party and its leader, Benny Gantz, not to enter into a coalition with the prime minister in light of the three corruption cases in which he has been indicted, or at least not to allow him power over the judiciary in the new government.
Organizer Shikma Schwartzman told those assembled that a unity government should not mean “a coalition agreement that tramples over Israel’s basic laws. If [you decided to go for] unity, you should have built a concrete wall between the man accused of criminal activity and the justice system.”
Critics have accused Gantz of failing to protect the justice system and allowing Netanyahu too much control over it as part of the coalition deal signed this week.
Under the agreement, Netanyahu has veto power over appointments to the state prosecution hierarchy, and all other senior public appointments, for at least the first six months of the new coalition.
Likud also ensured a right-wing majority on the Judicial Appointments Committee, which installs judges, if counting Derech Eretz MK Zvi Hauser — a Gantz ally but one who is a right-wing conservative and a former cabinet secretary under Netanyahu. Though he is unlikely to back judicial activism, Hauser has also been critical of attacks on the courts and is considered by Gantz and his allies to be a defender of the judiciary’s independence. Meanwhile Blue and White’s Avi Nissenkorn is set to be appointed justice minister, replacing the firebrand Amir Ohana of Likud who had made a habit of attacking the courts and the state prosecution.
Speaking to demonstrators, former Shin Bet security service chief Carmi Gilon, who led the organization during the assassination of late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin — which took place in the eponymous square — said Rabin above all else “took responsibility for his decisions and actions,” while Netanyahu “is the first and only Israeli prime minister who has never taken responsibility for his actions and decisions.”
Gilon added that the High Court of Justice “is the last defender of Israeli democracy before it crumbles completely,” and said its justices were under an ongoing threat to their safety “which was born in the court of Benjamin Netanyahu, on the path to another political killing in Israel.”
He said the coalition deal “destroys the Knesset, and gives its authority to a 52-member government.”
Under the deal, the Knesset essentially loses the power to unseat a prime minister, loses the power of the purse since it can no longer hold up the state budget, and, for the first six months of the new government at least, effectively loses even the power of legislation itself, since no laws are to be passed unless Netanyahu and Gantz agree on them. The former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein on Thursday called the coalition agreement “shocking to a jurist, because it contains so many legal monstrosities. Someone who respects the concept of Basic Laws, who sees in them a constitutional text, can’t possibly like this. The [Basic Laws] are being trampled as if they were a sewage bylaw of the Raanana municipality.”
Noting that in 1995 he had warned Netanyahu, then head of the opposition, to stop “your incitement speech” against Rabin which could lead to an attempt on the prime minister’s life, Gilon said: “You didn’t listen to me then and changed nothing in your path of incitement.
“Today I entreat you again: Listen to me and stop you violent incitement campaign against court judges. If a High Court justice is murdered in Israel, his blood will be on your hands.”
Netanyahu has often been blamed by the left for contributing to the atmosphere that led to Rabin’s assassination through his fiery rhetoric. In the weeks before the assassination, Netanyahu and other senior Likud members attended a right-wing political rally in Jerusalem where protesters branded Rabin a “traitor,” “murderer” and “Nazi” for signing a peace agreement with the Palestinians earlier that year.
Critics say Netanyahu — who stood with other right-wing politicians on a balcony above Zion Square as the protests unfolded beneath him, and who also marched in a Ra’anana protest as demonstrators carried a coffin behind him — enabled inflammatory rhetoric that incited to Rabin’s murder.
He has denied those claims as “attempts to distort the historical truth.”
A similar black flag rally was held last Sunday, with several thousand people also attending. Addressing the crowd, Yesh Atid-Telem leaders Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, Gantz’s former allies, attacked both him and Netanyahu, with Lapid saying Gantz had become part of the problem.
“They are fighting to get into the government,” Lapid said of his former partner. “Telling themselves stories. They say, ‘We’ll fight from the inside.’ You won’t fight from the inside. You don’t fight corruption from within. If you’re inside, you’re part of it.”
“The government being formed isn’t an emergency government or a national unity government. It is the fifth Netanyahu government. In the negotiations, they didn’t even talk about the coronavirus. They didn’t talk about the economy. They talked about themselves. About their jobs. Those who broke up Blue and White and defrauded us are going to sit under a man indicted for fraud. Those who breached our trust, are going to sit under a man indicted for breach of trust. Those who were bribed with jobs and perks, are going to sit under a man indicted for bribery.”
Netanyahu faces bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges in three cases. His trial was to have begun on March 17, but most of the courts were closed with the outbreak of the pandemic, and it has now been postponed to May. The courts administration announced Wednesday that in the wake of an easing of coronavirus restrictions it would be expanding its activities from May 3, meaning there was no impediment to starting Netanyahu’s trial on its currently scheduled date of May 24.
Previous protests by the black flag movement has seen demonstrators often keeping to their cars in order to uphold the social distancing directives.
On Friday, government ministers reportedly pushed to limit the size of protests as part of the virus restrictions, but faced opposition to doing so from Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit.
At Friday’s cabinet meeting, during which ministers approved lifting further restrictions on businesses, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan argued that police were unable to enforce social distancing guidelines at large protests and it was therefore necessary to cap the number of people taking part in a demonstration, according to Hebrew media reports.
“Police have no way of enforcing demonstrations of thousands [of protesters], for example keeping a distance of two meters or spaces between groups,” he was quoted saying by the Walla news site.
Erdan, whose ministry oversees police, said general guidelines limiting protests should be drawn up and called for the cabinet to hold a vote approving them.
“I request that the government instruct the Justice Ministry to determine with the police rules of coordinating and approving protests including limiting their size, so it will be possible to enforce the fulfillment of Health Ministry directives,” he was reported to say. “The situation at the moment is that there is no way to limit the size of a protest beforehand.”
Erdan’s stance received backing from other unnamed government ministers, but reports said Mandelblit opposed approving limitations on protests through the emergency ordinances that the cabinet has been using to impose far-reaching restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.
“If you want, bring [it] for legislating in the Knesset,” Mandelblit reportedly said.
Protests are one of the few public activities allowed under Israel’s strict lockdown rules. Demonstrators on the right and left have both regularly held rallies — including both in support of and against Netanyahu — some of which have drawn a few thousand protesters.