Government pushing ahead with reform next week

A show of ‘power and unity’: Tens of thousands expected at anti-government protests

Demonstrators respond as Netanyahu says he wants to ‘punch back’ against those opposed to judicial overhaul; Tel Aviv again to be the focus of 8th week of mass protests

Israelis dressed as characters from 'The Handmaid's Tale' protest the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis dressed as characters from 'The Handmaid's Tale' protest the government's planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tens of thousands of Israelis were expected to attend an eighth week of mass protests against the government’s judicial overhaul on Saturday night, with organizers vowing to show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu their “power and unity” after he said he wanted to use “a fist” against protesters.

“Anyone who wants to punch and beat us will discover our power and unity tonight,” organizers said in a statement on Saturday morning.

Netanyahu said during a Friday meeting he wanted to “punch back” against protesters opposed to his coalition’s effort to overhaul the judiciary and compared the demonstrators to anti-vaxxers.

Large-scale protests centered around Tel Aviv were again expected on Saturday night.

Saturday’s protest was set to start at 6 p.m. with a march from Dizengoff Square to Kaplan Street, the site of the demonstration.

Among those scheduled to speak were former prime minister Ehud Barak and US Reform Judaism leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, February 18, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Barak on Thursday warned that Israel was weeks away from descending into a dictatorship due to the hardline government’s push to upend the judiciary, adding that people would be duty-bound to refuse orders by “an illegitimate regime.”

Following the march, activists from the anti-Netanyahu “Black Flag” movement plan to block traffic on the Ayalon Highway, the Ynet news site reported.

Protests are also scheduled in other cities across the country, with National Unity party leader Benny Gantz set to address the demonstration in Haifa.

Netanyahu told ministerial colleagues Friday he wanted to “punch back” at protesters against the government and “hit out against the lies” he claimed were being told against his coalition’s effort to overhaul the judiciary, while seemingly comparing such alleged lies to Palestinian terrorism.

Comparing the protesters to those who demonstrated against a controversial natural gas deal he led in 2015, Netanyahu asserted that the deal had been a great success, before adding: “I want you to be equipped with these things and simply punch back. It’s not just hitting out against terror, [we need to] hit out against the lies.”

The quote was provided by the Prime Minister’s Office on Saturday night, a day after Channel 12 news reported on his comments while providing a different — apparently inaccurate — version of the quote, in which Netanyahu was cited as saying: “I want to give you a fist to strike them with… The same people who protested against the gas agreement or the coronavirus vaccines are the same people protesting today… Just like they said then that the gas deal would cause damage, they also say today that’s what the reform will do. We must strike down the lie.”

It was not clear whether the prime minister had indeed compared the protesters to anti-vaxxers. The PMO transcript did not mention them, but only provided a single, limited quote.

Netanyahu’s office stressed he had been speaking figuratively.

“When the prime minister used the word ‘strike,’ he meant to strike at the untrue arguments of those who spread panic, and not to physically strike anyone,” the PMO said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting on the state budget, at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on February 23, 2023. ((Alex Kolomoisky/POOL)

The coalition’s plans to severely weaken the judiciary have sparked mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and smaller rallies around the country. Tens of thousands protested outside the Knesset on Monday as the government held a first vote on a key piece of legislation in the plan. Other rallies have drawn close to 100,000 demonstrators.

Israelis protest against government plans to overhaul the judicial system outside the Knesset, with the Bank of Israel headquarters seen in the background, February 20, 2023. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Since being sworn in less than two months ago, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition has prioritized the proposals, which are being spearheaded by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

Despite the protests and calls for dialogue, the government was planning to push ahead with further legislation next week.

Rothman was planning to bring the so-called “override” bill, which passed a preliminary reading last week, for discussion in the committee on Sunday morning, Channel 12 reported.

According to Rothman’s bill, passed as Basic Law: Override, the Knesset could legislate any law with a “notwithstanding clause,” which stipulates that the law would be considered valid even if it contravenes a Basic Law.

The legislation would also require that all 15 justices of the High Court rule unanimously to strike down a piece of legislation that was not made immune to judicial review.

The coalition is also reportedly planning this coming week to advance legislation that would radically limit the circumstances in which the recusal of a serving prime minister can be ordered.

The sweeping reforms, which have been bulldozed through the Knesset in recent weeks include the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges to the High Court, all but eliminating the court’s ability to review and strike down legislation, and allowing politicians to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.

Chairman of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee MK Simcha Rothman leads a committee hearing, February 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.

The plan has drawn intense criticism and dire warnings from security officials, foreign allies, leading financial and legal experts, and public petitions by various officials, professionals and private companies.

Top economic figures have repeatedly warned the overhaul will cause severe damage to the economy. After the Knesset passed initial votes on the legislation on Tuesday, marking the first significant steps in its divisive effort, the shekel depreciated to the weakest level in three years against the US dollar and Tel Aviv shares declined.

Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed the predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.

Several recent polls have indicated the overhaul plans are broadly unpopular with the public, and that the coalition has lost the support of swaths of voters since taking office.

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