‘Not the time for a time-out’: Mass anti-overhaul protests held for 23rd week

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Weekly protests against the government’s intention to overhaul the justice system took place for the 23rd week in a row Saturday night, days ahead of a crucial Knesset vote on the makeup of the key Judicial Selection Committee.

Israeli television estimated that between 74,000 and 80,000 attended the main rally on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, while organizers claimed around 100,000, alongside thousands of others in some 150 locations around the country, kicking off the 23rd week of regular protests against the now-paused government plan. Last week’s Tel Aviv rally drew an estimated 95,000-140,000 people, and previous weeks saw some 200,000 people gather.

Many of the demonstrations, including in Tel Aviv, began with a silent commemoration for the latest victims of a spiraling crime wave in the Arab community, which has claimed the lives of 101 people since the beginning of the year, nine in just the past three days.

During the main rally at Kaplan Street, protesters held signs reading “dead-class citizen,” which in Hebrew sounds similar to “second-class citizen,” in reference to the Arab community.

In Haifa, former prime minister Ehud Barak called for a non-violent civil uprising against the government.

“We are determined and we will save democracy. [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu understands that if he tries again to [pass the overhaul], he will run into an iron wall,” Barak said.

“We haven’t won the battle yet. This is not the time for a time-out. We must not fall into illusions. We must intensify the protest and end the negotiations immediately,” Barak said, referring to compromise talks under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog.

“The protest must intensify and move into a civil uprising. Non-violent civil disobedience,” he added.

Anti-overhaul protesters gather at the Elyakim Bridge near Yokneam, June 10, 2023. (Courtesy)

On Wednesday, the Knesset will vote to appoint two lawmakers to the nine-member Judicial Selection Committee, which is chaired by Justice Minister Yariv Levin of Likud. The coalition has threatened to take both spots on the panel, breaking with tradition.

Opposition leaders have said that if the coalition does so, it will signal the end of the compromise talks.

The makeup of the judicial selection panel is central to the coalition’s ongoing efforts to greatly increase political control over the judiciary. A key bill in the overhaul plan would reshape the committee and hand the government an automatic majority, giving it the power to determine most judicial appointments.

That bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice. However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition, the likes of which was last seen before the legislation was frozen.

Demonstrators hold up flares during a rally to protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on June 10, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The judicial overhaul legislation has been frozen since late March, when Netanyahu said he would halt the plans to allow for talks with the opposition, aimed at finding a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform.

But months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

Netanyahu said last month, following the passage of the state budget, that “of course” the overhaul was now back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, however, he added: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, eroding Israel’s democratic character and leaving minorities unprotected. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

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