Tens of thousands of protesters in Israel held protests in at least three major cities on Saturday against the government’s judicial reform plans.
Israeli media reported that about 80,000 people attended a demonstration in Tel Aviv, with smaller protests in Jerusalem and Haifa. No major unrest was reported, though Israeli media said small crowds scuffled with police as they tried to block a Tel Aviv highway.
Police beefed up their presence ahead of the march. Israeli media quoted police as saying officers had been instructed to be “very sensitive” and allow the protest to proceed peacefully. But they also vowed a tough response to any vandalism or violent behavior.
The judicial reform plans includes a list of changes to the appointment, authority, and operation of the nation’s Supreme Court. They were first announced on Jan. 4 by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who, along with other critics of the high court, says unelected judges have too much power.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose conservative new government holds a solid parliamentary majority, has described the plans for judicial reform as a restoration of the balance of the three branches of government. On Friday, he signaled flexibility on the reform plan, saying it would be implemented “with careful consideration while hearing all of the positions.”
Reform opponents say the proposed changes would reduce judiciary independence, threaten Israeli democracy, and be conducive to corruption. The Supreme Court chief justice, Israel’s attorney-general, and Israeli opposition leaders have said they oppose the plan.
President Isaac Herzog had appealed to polarized politicians to “lower the temperatures” of the debates.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Benjamin Gantz, the former deputy prime minister of Israel from 2021 to 2022 who is now a member of the opposition and head of the Blue and White Party, joined the protest and said on Twitter: “I’m together with you in the square. We will fight in all legal ways to prevent the coup d’état.”
Politicians allied with Netanyahu also spoke out.
Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister and minister with the ministry of defense, as well as the head of the Religious Zionist Party, cheered on supporters of the current government.
“In the year of the previous left-wing government, we demonstrated again and again,” he posted on Twitter on Saturday. “The disconnected media never gave us a week’s coverage, [we] did not break into live broadcasts, barely mentioned the existence of the demonstrations after they were over, and with deliberate underestimation. Despite this, we overthrew the government and won the elections. The people are with us! And by virtue of it we will carry out the reform of the judicial system.”
“The cries of the left do not arise from concern for democracy but from concern for the fate of the legal aristocracy that has ruled here de facto for the past decades,” Amichai Chikli, the minister of Diaspora Affairs, minister for Social Equality, and a lawmaker with the conservative Likud Party, said on Twitter.
Miki Zohar, a senior lawmaker in Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party, said on Twitter: “Tens of thousands of people were at tonight’s demonstrations. In the election held here two and a half months ago, millions turned out. We promised the people change, we promised governance, we promised reforms—and we will make good on that.”
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister is now in his sixth term, following a brief hiatus when he lost the election in 2021. He is on trial for corruption since being indicted in 2019. Netanyahu has said the justice system is biased against him. He has also denied any criminal wrongdoing and has accused the media and law enforcement officials of having plotted to oust him.
Proposed Judicial Reforms
Levin’s proposed bill would adjust the number people on the panel for selecting judges to the Supreme Court (the Judicial Appointments Committee), expanding the panel from nine to 11 members.
The panel members would be able to approve appointments to the bench by a bare majority of 6–5 votes, whereas currently the threshold is a majority of 7–2—one designed to encourage compromise. Meanwhile, the threshold to remove someone from the bench would change from 7–2 to 9–2.
The bill would also adjust the makeup of the Judicial Appointments Committee. Currently, it comprises three Supreme court justices, two cabinet ministers, two lawmakers, and two lawyers.
The number of lawmakers on the panel would, under the bill, be increased from two to three, with two of them from the coalition. The number of participating cabinet ministers would also increase to three. The two lawyers would be replaced by two “public figures” chosen by the justice minister. This means that, in total, seven of the members will either belong to the coalition, or have been appointed directly by the coalition.
Levin’s reform also includes a provision that enables a person to be appointed into the roles of Supreme Court Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice—even if they had not served as a Supreme Court judge. Currently, the most senior justice receives the role of chief justice. Furthermore, under the new bill, the chief justice would be limited to a seven-year term.
Among other provisions, the bill also stipulates that a majority of 12 out of 15 Supreme Court Justices would be required to veto laws passed by parliament, which may reenact a canceled law.
The justices would be barred from hearing any appeals against the Basic Laws of Israel—the nation’s quasi-constitution passed by parliament. Also, it would remove “reasonableness” as a standard of review for the Supreme Court to cancel a government decision.
Polls have diverged on public views of the reforms. Channel 13 TV last week found 53 percent of Israelis were opposed to changing the court appointments’ structure while 35 percent were in support. But Channel 14 TV on Thursday found 61 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
From The Epoch Times