For the seventh consecutive week, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Saturday evening demonstrations across the country against the government’s legislative efforts to overhaul the judiciary, which the coalition is slated to advance in the coming days.
The central rally was again held in Tel Aviv, with some 100,000 people in attendance. Hundreds of them walked onto the Ayalon Highway, blocking the main throughway for an hour, while police forces reluctantly stood by.
Relatively smaller-scale rallies were held in Haifa, Netanya, Beersheba, Ramat Hasharon, Ness Ziona, Zichron Yaakov, Herzliya, Ashdod, and beyond, with organizers saying tens of thousands joined those protests. Jerusalem held two protests against the government, with one at the city’s Liberty Bell Park attended by hundreds of right-wing Israelis who called on the coalition to heed President Isaac Herzog’s call to halt the legislative effort in order to negotiate on a compromise proposal that he had drafted.
Meanwhile, the coalition is preparing to advance the first elements of its judicial overhaul package through the first of three necessary Knesset votes on Monday, after pushing them through a parliamentary committee earlier in the month.
Organizers of the protest movement have declared Monday as a “national day of struggle,” which, for the second week in a row, will include a large rally outside the Knesset, as well as demonstrations in various cities and the shuttering of some businesses.
The shakeup sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government would increase its control over the judiciary, allow it to override court decisions with the slimmest majority, and give it full power over judicial appointments.
Supporters of the overhaul plan argue that the courts in Israel have been afforded too much power and that reforms are needed to restore the balance between the branches of government. Critics say the overhaul will remove the judiciary’s role as the only effective check on the power of the ruling majority and enable assaults on human rights.
Addressing protesters in the coastal city of Netanya, opposition leader Yair Lapid told the crowd: “They hear you in Jerusalem, they hear you in the Knesset, they hear you in the halls of power… They hear you and they are nervous. They hear you and are afraid.”
Lapid said that the religious-right bloc’s November electoral victory did not give it the right to establish a dictatorship. “In a democracy, citizens have rights that are untouchable by the government.”
In Tel Aviv, demonstrators sang the Hatikva national anthem and marched alongside a massive banner featuring a large copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, a chief architect of the judicial reform, had his phone number disseminated at the rally by demonstrators, and protest leaders urged participants to send him text messages, Channel 12 reported.
In Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, dozens of women were again seen dressed as handmaids from Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale” about a fictional future society that harshly oppresses women.
At the right-wing protest in Liberty Bell Park in Jerusalem, former communications minister Yoaz Hendel, who helped organize the demonstration, told onlookers that he supported changes to the judicial system but clarified that they “are not worth a civil war.”
Yoram Cohen, who served as Shin Bet director under Netanyahu, told the crowd that the proposals being pushed by the government “won’t reform the legal system, rather will neutralize it altogether.”
“The reform will turn Israel from a democratic country into one that is not,” he said.
Full steam ahead
As demonstrators marched through the streets on Saturday evening, Justice Minister Yariv Levin vowed to advance the government’s overhaul plans as planned, denying recent reports that claimed he had been at odds with Netanyahu, who was ostensibly pushing for more moderate judicial changes.
Levin told Channel 13 that the reports were “ridiculous fake news.”
“I have the full backing of Likud, the coalition, and the public to move forward with the reform,” he said. Netanyahu has publicly backed Levin’s proposals, insisting they will strengthen Israeli democracy.
Despite Herzog’s efforts, the coalition and the opposition have not entered negotiations over the overhaul plans. Lapid demanded the legislation be put on hold for 60 days as a precondition to talks — a request the coalition rejected.
Last week, the coalition-controlled Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, headed by Rothman, advanced the first piece of judicial overhaul legislation for its first reading in the Knesset plenum on Monday.
The specific bill would give the government control over all judicial appointments and bar the High Court from striking down quasi-constitutional Basic Laws. The legislation changes the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee and gives the government and coalition five of the panel’s nine members, with a simple majority needed to make appointments.
While the coalition agreed to delay advancing some of its legislation for several days, it plans to move forward with several bills next week.
On Sunday, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will hold a hearing on Rothman’s bill to restrict the High Court’s power to strike down regular pieces of legislation.
The High Court of Justice has struck down or ordered amended 22 pieces of legislation since 1997, mostly on the basis of Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty.
Rothman’s bill would only allow the court to strike down non-Basic Law legislation if all 15 judges agree to do so.
On Wednesday, the bills that were delayed after Herzog issued his request for a pause — one known as the “Deri Law 2.0,” which would bar the High Court from striking down ministerial appointments, and another that would move the Police Internal Investigations Department from the State Prosecutor’s Office to the authority of the justice minister — will be brought before the Knesset plenum for preliminary votes.
The first bill is the coalition’s attempt to return Shas chair Aryeh Deri to the cabinet table after the High Court ruled last month that it was “unreasonable in the extreme” for him to be granted a ministerial post due to his past criminal convictions — including one last year for tax offenses — and because he had falsely convinced a judge last year that he was permanently leaving political life as part of his plea bargain.
The second bill is aimed at reducing the State Prosecutor’s Office’s involvement in probes into investigations into law enforcement, amid accusations by coalition lawmakers of politically-motivated probes.
Also on Wednesday, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will hold a closed meeting regarding the diplomatic ramifications of the government’s judicial overhaul plans, at the request of opposition MK Yoav Segalovitz (Yesh Atid).
Levin said Saturday that he was still prepared to hold “genuine” talks but not on the basis being proposed by some opposition leaders.
The justice minister noted that as the bills proceed through the Knesset, they will naturally be subject to public debate and changes. “What will end up in the Knesset will not be the same as what I proposed,” he said.
“I made a proposal that I think is suitable to debate. I’m ready to meet with Lapid and [National Unity party chair Benny] Gantz tonight. I think we need to sit down and talk. What sort of a thing is it to set conditions in order to talk?” Levin asked.
He claimed that the current judicial framework has allowed judges to select “clones” of themselves. “What was, will no longer be. The court will be a court for everyone. I think this is the strengthening of democracy.”
Likud MK David Bitan on Saturday was insistent that the parties would eventually find common ground on the issue.
“Of course, it will end with a compromise — 100 percent,” he told Channel 12, adding: “It’s our responsibility to conduct negotiations.”