Protests and strikes in Israel as plans for judicial overhaul move forward

Bethan McKernan & Quique Kierszenbaum

The Guardian  /  February 13, 2023

Tens of thousands gather for rally and workers in several sectors strike over rightwing government’s proposals.

Israel’s new hard-right government has begun introducing sweeping legislation aimed at overhauling the judicial system, prompting the largest public demonstrations against the proposed measures to date.

In a heated meeting in which several opposition politicians had to be forcibly removed, the Knesset’s constitution, law and justice committee voted on two bills on Monday: one will give politicians greater control over the appointment of supreme court justices, and the other will allow a simple majority in the Knesset to override almost all supreme court rulings.

The proposals will now go to the Knesset for the first of three readings, although it is unclear when they will be voted on.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial changes have been met with some of the biggest protests ever witnessed in Israel in the two months since he returned to office, uniting many elements of what is usually a highly polarized society. Members of the ultra-Orthodox community, army veterans and hi-tech executives are among those who have taken to the streets over fears the measures will set Israel on a path of democratic backsliding similar to that of Hungary, Poland and Turkey in recent years.

The anti-government movement mounted its biggest campaign yet on Monday, timed to coincide with the committee votes.

Tens of thousands of people descended on Jerusalem before a rally outside the Knesset during the afternoon, arriving on trains and in convoys of buses and cars. Elsewhere, workers in several sectors including doctors and the tech industry went on strike, demonstrators blocked motorways, and about 1,000 children and their parents marched down a main thoroughfare in Tel Aviv. State workers, and members of the Histadrut, Israel’s largest trade union, were told not to participate in the strikes.

By about midday, police said an estimated 100,000 protesters of all ages and backgrounds had gathered around the government complex in central Jerusalem, blocking traffic to the sound of chanting, drums and whistles. Many of them waved the blue and white Israeli flag.

Protest organizers put the figure much higher, at at least 250,000 people.

“I am here to protect Israeli democracy. If the supreme court is not independent there will not be any balances on parliament, they can pass anything they want with no limits. I don’t know if demonstrating will stop the reform, but we need to keep democracy on the public agenda,” said Ron Sheiman, 26, a graduate student.

The former PM and now leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, addressed the crowd, saying of the government: “Outwardly they grin sarcastically, saying that [the protests] won’t change anything, but inside they tremble, as rulers always tremble when they discover that there are people in front of them who are not willing to give up.”

After four years of political turmoil, Netanyahu re-entered government in December at the head of the most rightwing coalition in Israeli history – a bloc he found himself forced to work with after burning too many bridges with other political factions.

Various elements of the new administration wish to annex the occupied West Bank, roll back pro-LGBTQ+ legislation, limit freedom of speech and neuter the supreme court, which plays an outsized checks and balances role in a country with no formal constitution or second legislative chamber. Proponents of the judicial reforms say that they are necessary to restore balance between branches of government.

Overhauling the legal system is likely to help Netanyahu avoid a conviction in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges. But polling suggests the move has relatively little public support, and it has engendered widespread anger among centrist and liberal-leaning Israelis.

Shila Nati, 56, travelled from Tel Aviv to attend the Jerusalem protest instead of going to work. “We are here, I guess we are asking ourselves: ‘Does protesting help?’ Some people say that without [bloodshed] nothing will change. I don’t know how much power we have as protesters but this is the only thing I can do as a citizen.”

Israel’s small left wing, and much of the Palestinian community, which makes up 20% of the population, say the protest movement is merely seeking to uphold a status quo that systematically oppresses Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as minorities inside Israel.

Monday’s protest comes against a backdrop of escalating violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank that has killed 47 Palestinians and 10 Israelis so far this year, sparking fears that the security situation is spiraling out of control.

On Sunday night the president, Isaac Herzog, made a rare intervention in a televised address in which he floated a compromise plan to spare the country what he described as a “constitutional collapse” and possible violence.

In response to Herzog’s appeal to delay implementing the legislative steps, the justice minister, Yariv Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu, said that while he did not oppose dialogue, the judicial changes would continue as planned.

The US, which generally refrains from commenting on Israeli internal affairs, offered a veiled rebuke on Sunday. “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” Joe Biden said in a statement quoted by The New York Times.

Economists have also warned that any perceived erosion of democratic norms could potentially scare away foreign investment and lower the country’s credit rating. Nobel prize laureates and former Bank of Israel officials, as well as Barclays, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, have all warned of increased risk in investing in Israel.

Despite mounting criticism both at home and abroad, Netanyahu has doubled down on his plans for the judiciary. In comments on Twitter addressed to leaders of opposition parties on Monday evening, the prime minister asked that they “stop dragging the country into anarchy”.

“Most Israeli citizens don’t want anarchy, they want a discussion that is to the point and they want unity,” he said.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Quique Kierszenbaum in Jerusalem