As the Knesset moved forward with its debate on the coalition’s contentious overhaul legislation Sunday, with an eye toward approving limitations on court oversight within a day or two, two major rallies in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv underlined the split in Israeli society over the plan.
In Tel Aviv, at the site that has become synonymous with the anti-overhaul protests where Kaplan Street meets the Azrieli Towers, masses of supporters of the government held a demonstration urging the coalition to push ahead. It was the third major rally by supporters of the shakeup since the plan was announced in January.
At the same time, another large protest against the bill was staged near the Knesset in Jerusalem, demanding the government halt the legislation to prevent the High Court from striking down government decisions on the grounds of their being “unreasonable.”
Near midnight, a leading business forum representing 150 leading companies announced a strike for Monday, which would see some shopping centers and gas stations closed, and some businesses working in a reduced framework.
As the national crisis appeared to approach a crescendo, President Isaac Herzog, freshly returned from his US visit, rushed to Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is recuperating after having a pacemaker installed overnight.
Herzog earlier said he was making a last-ditch push to promote negotiations between the coalition and opposition, with the aim of forging a consensus judicial reform package.
“This is a time of emergency. An agreement must be reached,” Herzog was quoted saying in a statement from the President’s Residence. He later went to meet with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid and the opposition’s Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party.
There was no official word on the proposals discussed at the meetings. Channel 12 news reported in the evening that the gaps between the sides on a potential softening of the “reasonableness” bill were not insurmountable, and that the main sticking point was the opposition’s demand for an 18-month freeze on any further legislation, as the sides try to find consensus — a period the coalition views as too long.
The event in Tel Aviv was held under the slogan: “The people are with you, complete the legislation — 64 seats are not second class,” a reference to the number of seats Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government holds in the 120-member Knesset. The overhaul supporters were seeking a show of force to counteract the massive anti-overhaul protests that have rocked the country for 29 straight weeks.
Channel 13, citing the CrowdSolutions firm, reported some 60,000 at the Tel Aviv rally, while Channel 12, citing police estimates, put the number at a little over 100,000. Organizers claimed 200,000 people were in attendance, though this could not be independently confirmed.
CrowdSolutions also reported some 60,000 at the opposition rally in Jerusalem.
The warring demonstrations led to some striking scenes at Jerusalem’s Navon train station ahead of the rally, as many pro-overhaul activists headed downward toward the platform for the train to take them to Tel Aviv, just as anti-overhaul protesters were making their way up the adjacent escalators, having come from Tel Aviv to attend rallies near the Knesset in Jerusalem.
המחזה הסוריאליסטי בתחנת הרכבת ירושלים: אלפי חילונים מגיעים ברכבת מתל אביב להפגין נגד החורבן. אלפי דתיים יורדים מירושלים לתל אביב להפגין בעד החורבן. שום קשר שהוא בין הקבוצות העוינות. ישראל 2023, ערב חורבן שלישי pic.twitter.com/PqHWeyTOqL
— Dan Adin דן עדין (@adin_dan) July 23, 2023
The overcrowding caused delays that pushed the start of the pro-overhaul rally from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Demonstrators flocked to the rally intersection, which was renamed by the Tel Aviv municipality last week as “Democracy Square.”
Some pro-overhaul demonstrators covered the signs bearing the new name with stickers with the writing: “Reform Square.”
הימין מחזיר את קפלן לשפיות: כיכר הרפורמה! pic.twitter.com/S7vVSEoD4h
— יענקי כהן | Yanki Coen (@yankicoen) July 23, 2023
Others chanted: “The nation demands reserve duty without conditions,” and “Stop the service refusal” — a reference to more than 10,000 reservists, including hundreds of fighter jet pilots, who have suspended their volunteer duty in response to the government’s legislative push.
Some participants, including bereaved relatives of fallen soldiers, called for the military to oust those who had halted their duty. Others decried it as “taking the military hostage,” with organizers collecting signatures from active reservists for a petition denouncing the refusals.
“The overwhelming majority of reservists are finding it hard to sit at home while there is a small and vocal minority that is trying to dismantle the people’s army,” the organizers of the rally said in a statement.
Speaking at the rally, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, a former fighter pilot, addressed the protesting reservists and said that “refusing to serve undermines democracy,” arguing that the coalition’s bill does not amount to “dictatorship,” as critics have said.
“If we don’t pass this law, that will be the end of democracy in Israel,” Kisch said.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said: “The fixes to the justice system are meant to strengthen democracy and fulfill the people’s will. We were elected to implement a policy. I promise we will continue to talk with the opponents to remain one nation — there are no winners or losers.
“We’ve been saying for a long time that the people want judicial reform. Now let’s correct that a little: the people deserve judicial reform.”
Transportation Minister Miri Regev was more combative: “They are preserving their centers of power, their elites, while we are creating diversity, representation, and justice.”
She asked why former prime minister Ehud Barak was not being arrested for urging civil disobedience, and said those who refuse military orders belong “in jail.”
Likud MK Avichay Buaron promised that, after the reasonableness bill passes, “we are continuing to the Judicial Selection Committee” — the powerful judge selection panel which the coalition aims to alter to hand the coalition greater power over appointments.
Buaron said the coalition will continue and legislate a quasi-constitutional Basic Law: Legislation “which will not enable the High Court of Justice to strike down laws.”
Some demonstrators were filmed attacking a reporter for Channel 12 news and apparently trying to physically harm him, with police forces defending him and eventually extricating him from the crowd. The Union of Journalists in Israel condemned the incident.
הודעת חדשות 12: ״כתב חדשות 12 גלעד שלמור הותקף בידי מפגינים במחאת התמיכה ברפורמה הערב בקפלן. כוחות משטרה חצצו בין צוות חברת החדשות וכתבנו ובין המפגינים״.
תנו לאנשים לעבוד! לא מוחים בהפרעות לתקשורת. pic.twitter.com/oedyOnIq2y
— Ran Boker רן בוקר (@ranboker) July 23, 2023
Flyers circulated on social media before the rally showed that buses were organized to bring demonstrators from a number of locations across the country, the majority of them settlements in the West Bank.
Overhaul architects Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman addressed the rally as well, via video link from the Knesset. “Our hand is stretched out for understandings,” Levin said. But “understandings also require the opposition to make concessions… The situation whereby only one side holds the key roles in the judicial system, that situation will not continue.”
The organizers of the rally were also behind the so-called “March of the Million,” held in April in Jerusalem to show support for the overhaul legislation. Estimates of crowd size during that rally had ranged between 150,000 and 200,000 people.
Speaking at Sunday’s rally in the capital — for the first time since the regular anti-overhaul protests started — was former president Reuven Rivlin, who was a Likud MK for several decades and used to be a close ally of Netanyahu.
“I didn’t come to incite against anyone. I came to be with our citizens, to be saved from a moment unlike anything we’ve seen in the history of the country,” Rivlin told the crowd. “Our job is to see whether we can, over the next 24 hours, save our wonderful country.”
At the end of a four-day “March on Jerusalem,” protesters have set up a tent camp in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park near the Knesset, where they say they will remain until the legislation is shelved.
Rivlin quoted from the Declaration of Independence, Israel’s founding document, and chanted “Democracy” along with the crowd.
“The crisis today is undoubtedly severe — and there is only one person at this stage and moment who can cause our dear country to avoid this disaster. His name is Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, stop the entire legislative process immediately,” the former president urged, using the premier’s nickname.
Later Sunday, police used a water cannon to disperse some of the anti-overhaul demonstrators near the entrance to Jerusalem.
A water cannon also fired on some of the demonstrators as they headed back to Sacher Park.
The demonstrations were held as the Knesset was holding final debates on a key part of the overhaul plan.
The coalition is expected to push through legislation on Monday or Tuesday to cancel the judicial yardstick of “reasonableness” for government and ministerial decisions, enacting the law over strong political and societal objections, and despite growing announcements by key army reservists that they will stop showing up for duty, as well as diplomatic, professional, social, economic, and security concerns raised by key Israeli officials and international allies.
Speculation grew Sunday evening that the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor federation, could announce a general strike after a compromise it had floated in an attempt to end the bitter, divisive national standoff was quickly dismissed by the ruling Likud party, anti-government protesters and parts of the opposition.
According to the draft proposal, courts would not be able to strike down government decisions on grounds of “reasonableness” if they relate to “matters of policy” and were approved by the entire cabinet. It was not clear whether a majority of ministers would be sufficient under the proposal to shield a decision from the reasonableness test, or if a unanimous decision by all cabinet members would be required.
Judges would also be barred from exercising the judicial standard to review the appointments of ministers and deputy ministers.
“All other decisions by ministers… will continue to be subject to judicial review, including per the reasonableness standard,” the statement said, while adding the changes wouldn’t take effect until a government is formed after the next elections.
The proposal also called for resuming talks between coalition and opposition representatives to reach agreement “on the rest of the issues,” with the government agreeing not to move forward with any further overhaul legislation in the next 18 months unless backed by at least 75 Knesset members. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government holds 64 seats in the 120-seat parliament.
As of midnight Sunday, the Histadrut had not made a decision on its next steps after its proposal was rejected. Monday’s planned strike by leading businesses was not coordinated with the Histadrut.