Thousands Protest in Israel Over Netanyahu’s Judicial Overhaul

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A battle over the future of Israel’s judiciary — perceived by many as a fight for the soul of Israel’s democracy — grew more fraught and fractious on Monday as roughly 100,000 protesters from across the country filled the streets outside Parliament in Jerusalem in one of the biggest-ever demonstrations in the city.

Protesters came by bus from Haifa, train from Tel Aviv and car from the occupied Golan Heights. They carried Israeli flags, megaphones and homemade banners. And they were chanting for democracy, freedom and judicial independence.

The demonstrators gathered to oppose a sweeping judicial overhaul proposed by Israel’s new government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the country’s history — that has bitterly divided Israelis. The changes, envisioned by the governing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, would reduce the Supreme Court’s ability to revoke laws passed in Parliament and give the government greater influence over who gets to be a judge.

The demonstration followed a dramatic televised speech on Sunday night by Israel’s mainly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, in which he called for compromise and warned that the crisis had left the country “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse,” and possibly “a violent clash.”

The scale of the protest reflected a deep disagreement in Israeli society over the ideal structure and future of the country’s democratic institutions. Those opposed to the plan have portrayed it as a threat to the liberal Israeli state; the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, has warned it could bring down Israeli democracy; a former defense minister, Benny Gantz, has warned of civil war.

The government, in response, says that the changes represent a much-needed reform of a judiciary that has become too powerful. Amid a highly charged public debate, leaders on both sides have accused each other of attempting a coup.

On Monday, after opposition legislators disrupted a Parliamentary committee that advanced the proposed bill, Mr. Netanyahu berated opposition leaders, telling them to “stop intentionally derailing the country into anarchy.”

Rooted in a decades-old culture war between different parts of Israeli society, the standoff began after Israel’s new government entered office in late December and almost immediately sought control over judicial appointments.

To the government and its supporters, the move would enhance Israeli democracy by restoring parity in the relationship between elected lawmakers and an unelected and interventionist judiciary, and ensuring that government decisions better reflect the electoral choices of a majority of the population.

To critics, the proposals would instead damage Israeli democracy by giving too much power to the government; endangering minority rights; and removing limits on Mr. Netanyahu’s ability to enact legislation that might allow him to escape punishment in his ongoing corruption trial. Mr. Netanyahu denies that the proposals are for his personal benefit.

The focus of Monday’s protests was a road in central Jerusalem that connects the three branches of government — the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the prime minister’s headquarters.

Roughly 100,000 people had gathered there by midafternoon, according to Kan, the Israeli public broadcaster. Israeli news media reported that some protesters had traveled in a 2.5-mile-long convoy of cars from northern Israel.

Transport officials and companies arranged additional trains and buses to cope with the demand for Jerusalem-bound transit.

In their comments, speeches and banners, the protesters expressed fears that the judicial proposals would turn Israel into a dictatorship.

“You voted Bibi,” read one protester’s placard, using a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu. “You got Mussolini.” Other placards placed photos of Mr. Netanyahu alongside pictures of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, or the actor Sacha Baron Cohen dressed in khaki from his 2012 satirical movie, “The Dictator.”

But many there said the protest went beyond politics and was more about values.

“This is against ideas, not a person,” said Adir Ben-Tovim, 37, a real estate manager who had come from Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. “I feel the country has been hijacked by a government rushing blindly toward a disaster for the Israeli economy and a breakdown of society,” he added.

A girl of 12 held a placard that read: “When I am 18, will there be elections?” as the crowd around her chanted: “Democracy! Democracy!”

Gili Bar-Hillel, a publisher and translator, drove from Tel Aviv to participate, along with her partner and their son, a 10th grader, and described the judicial overhaul plan as “a regime coup.”

“I can’t stand and watch and say I didn’t do anything,” said Ms. Bar-Hillel, 48. “We are not far from a situation where we won’t be allowed to protest,” she added. “It’s a slippery slope.”

The protest followed weeks of regular demonstrations in Tel Aviv, where a similar number of people have gathered every Saturday night since the start of the year.

But Monday’s demonstrations were considered more impressive because they occurred during a weekday and mainly in Jerusalem, a conservative and religious stronghold. Participants of all ages had taken a day off work and school. They included groups of doctors, army veterans who had completed a two-day march to Jerusalem, students, high-tech workers and other professionals.

Some protesters said they doubted that the demonstration would have any immediate impact on the government, but that it was important to show those working in the opposition, as well as the Supreme Court chief justice and other public figures opposing the changes, that they had popular support.

Inside Parliament, a government-controlled committee voted on Monday to advance part of the proposed legislation. Though the politicians driving the plan said there might be room for some compromise, they defied a plea by Mr. Herzog, the president, to pause the legislative process to allow room for broader discourse and consensus.

The vote set off a fracas in the committee room after opposition lawmakers, one of them in tears, chanted against the decision, and some of them clambered over tables to confront the committee chair, Simcha Rothman, a government lawmaker.

The moves came hours after the government announced its first efforts to strengthen Israel’s settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, giving retroactive authorization to nine settlements that were built by groups of settlers without official state approval.

Though large and loud, the protests on Monday reflected only one part of Israeli public opinion. Roughly 41 percent of Israelis support the judicial overhaul and 44 percent oppose it, according to a recent poll by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based research group.

Pro-government Israelis have also held counter demonstrations in recent days, albeit in much smaller numbers. One far-right group kept behind a police cordon on the edge of Monday’s protest displayed a banner bearing the message: “Leftists are traitors.”

Currently, “we don’t have democracy,” said Avi Abelow, 49, a right-wing video blogger attending a pro-government rally in the West Bank last weekend. “This is about providing proper democracy,” Mr. Abelow said.

On the Israeli right, the Supreme Court is typically seen as a left-leaning institution that prevents right-wing and religious governments from putting in place the policies they were elected to enact. Though it has broadly supported settlement construction in the occupied territories, the court has sometimes made decisions that angered settlers, including a ruling in support of Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and the evacuation of Israeli settlers there.

The court has often also angered ultra-Orthodox Jews, also known as Haredim, by opposing measures that give them special rights, including exemptions from military conscription.

As a result, polling suggests that support for the judicial overhaul is generally dependent on a person’s religious and political beliefs. Polls by the Jewish People Policy Institute indicated that the Haredi sector was more enthusiastic about the changes than any other subsection of Israeli society, closely followed by religious nationalists, while only a quarter of secular Israelis supported them.

Among Israel’s Palestinian minority, which forms about 20 percent of the wider population, attitudes to the judicial plans are more ambivalent.

Many Arabs agree that the Supreme Court generally acts as a bulwark against attacks on minorities and has acted to restrain parts of Israel’s settlement enterprise. But they also feel that Israel’s democracy has for years been compromised by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, where millions of Palestinians live under varying forms of Israeli control without voting or residency rights in Israel itself.

“Democracy cannot exist while you’re occupying other people,” said Aida Touma-Sliman, an Arab lawmaker in the Israeli Parliament.

“This fight will not end today,” said the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, outside Parliament. “But a day will come when each of the men and women who are out here on the street will be able to say to their children: The day the state of Israel needed me the most, I was there.”

The conflict over the law is only at its beginning. Monday’s committee vote set the stage for a debate on the floor of Parliament in the coming days — the first step toward turning the plan into law in the coming months.

Myra Noveck, Gabby Sobelman and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.


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