‘We will defend Israel’: Mass anti-judicial overhaul protests enter 32nd week

Main rally in Tel Aviv, as IDF warns its operational readiness is suffering amid refusal by reservists to show up to voluntary duty while government vows to push ahead with shakeup

Protesters play the drums during a rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)
Protesters play the drums during a rally against the government's judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

Protesters were demonstrating against the judicial overhaul for the 32nd week on Saturday evening, amid Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence he would push ahead with a key part of the contentious reform and warnings from the military that its operational readiness is suffering.

Protesters began marching in Tel Aviv from Kikar Dizengoff at 7 p.m. to Kaplan Street for the central rally beginning at 8 p.m.

More than 150 other demonstrations were slated to take place across the country, including outside the homes of top government members.

“In the past two weeks, we have witnessed the direct results of the judicial coup: racist policies by government ministries, the collapse of the police and the beginning of a wave of emigration,” organizers said in a statement ahead of the mass rallies.

“All this adds to the deep crisis in the people’s army, whose operational readiness has been severely harmed by the government’s actions. It is up to us, the citizens, to come out and defend Israel,” they said. “We started in the winter and now at the height of summer — we will continue to defend the State of Israel.”

Speakers at Kaplan were to include IDF reserve general Amiram Levin, education and social activist Soundous Alhout and journalist Or-ly Barlev, in addition to protest leader Shikma Bressler.

Shikma Bressler delivers a speech during a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills outside of the Knesset, in Jerusalem on July 23, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Netanyahu indicated on Sunday that his government will move ahead with changing the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee, the most far-reaching and controversial measure in the judicial shakeup package. He intimated that he was still seeking consensus on this. After that, he said, he would shelve the rest of the judicial overhaul plan.

“We’ve already done quite a bit,” Netanyahu told the Bloomberg financial news outlet. “I stopped the judicial legislation for three months, seeking consensus from the other side – unfortunately not getting it. Then [I] brought in a relatively minor part of the reform, passed it,” he said, referencing the passage two weeks ago of the “reasonableness law,” which bars judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of their reasonableness.

“And then [I] said I’m still going to give it several months to try and get another consensus. What is it? It would probably be about the composition of the committee that elects judges… that’s basically what’s left. Because other things, I think, we should not legislate. ”

While largely avoiding sitting down with Israeli news outlets, Netanyahu has been on an international media blitz in recent weeks, interviewing with NBC News, Fox News, CNN, ABC News, NPR and others, in a global charm offensive to counter severe criticism of his government’s judicial overhaul plans.

The current judicial selection bill, which was suspended in March but is ready for its final readings at short notice, would remake the Judicial Selection Committee, under which coalition and Supreme Court representatives each have veto power over the other’s candidates for the top court, requiring a consensus on such appointments. Instead, the legislation would change the composition of the panel so as to bring appointments throughout the judicial hierarchy under near-absolute government control.

Israelis protest against the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara, in Moshav Neve Ativ, northern Israel, August 8, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Netanyahu also said that he hopes Israel won’t be plunged into a “constitutional crisis.” He has recently refused to commit to honoring a theoretical High Court of Justice decision striking down the “reasonableness” law, raising concerns about such a scenario.

The government’s plans have continued to roil the country, particularly the military.

The chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, met Friday with dozens of reservist pilots who have declared they would no longer show up for volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, warning them that the state of the force’s readiness was “worsening.”

An unconfirmed report by Channel 12 added that Bar told pilots: “Instead of preparing for war, I’m dealing only with this.”

As the coalition advanced the first major piece of related legislation last month, more than 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so. The reservists, some of whom have acted on their threats, have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

Chief of the Israeli Air Force Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar speaks at the Tel Nof air base on August 6, 2023 (Israel Air Force)

The Friday meeting with some 60 reservists, which took place at the military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, was the latest attempt by senior military officers to convince protesting pilots to show up for duty despite the government advancing the judicial overhaul.

In excerpts provided by the military from the meeting, IAF chief Bar said that “the current assessment is that the Air Force is competent, but there is harm [to its readiness] that is worsening.”

“We shoulder the responsibility for security… While some of you may have issues, we expect you to keep coming,” Bar told the reservists.

The military fears further damage could be caused to its battle readiness should more protesting reservists act on their threats. Amid those fears, senior officers have been regularly calling on the protesting reservists to show up for volunteer duty.

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