With fate of judicial panel in the balance, masses rally nationwide against overhaul

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Tens of thousands of people took part in nationwide rallies Saturday night against the government’s plan to shackle the judiciary, after a week that saw a chaotic Knesset vote for the country’s judge selection panel and opposition leaders quit negotiations on a potential compromise.

Crowd estimation company CrowdSolutions, cited by Channel 13 news, assessed some 100,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv.

The 24th weekend of demonstrations, held in some 150 locations around the country, also comes ahead of elections next week to the leadership of the Israel Bar Association that have become central to the tug-of-war between the sides and will be watched closely by both.

Amit Becher, interim head of the IBA, who is running for the permanent post, addressed the crowd at the main rally in Tel Aviv, as did former justice and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, among others. A range of opposition figures turned out at protests around the country, including opposition leader Yair Lapid and Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman.

“The events of Wednesday in the Knesset — the attempt to delay convening the [Judicial Selection] Committee — are further proof of the revolution attempt that we have been fighting against for months,” Becher told the gathered protesters.

“An attempt to destroy the independence of the judicial system, to appoint political judges and to control the president of the Supreme Court and destroy democracy.”

He claimed that the election of his main opponent Efi Nave to head the Israel Bar Association would grant the government “complete control over appointing judges.” Nave, who stepped down from the position in 2021 amid a sex scandal, is seen as amiable to the coalition’s goals.

The interim head of the Israeli Bar Association, Amit Becher, attends a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv on June 17, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Livni told the crowd that the coalition “is already advancing fascist decisions and laws that will change the face of Israel forever.”

The government is pushing “laws that erase equality, that establish religious supremacy over secularists, Jewish supremacy over Arabs and corrupt supremacy over judges,” said Livni, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the word “equality.”

Saturday’s protests follow a bumpy political week in which Lapid and National Unity party leader Benny Gantz froze the judicial overhaul negotiations at the President’s Residence, while Justice Minister Yariv Levin vowed to try to unilaterally move ahead with the legislation.

The announcement from Lapid and Gantz came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attempted to torpedo a vote to appoint two members of Knesset to the crucial Judicial Selection Committee — the body which proponents of the judicial overhaul have sought to radically shake up.

Former justice minister Tzipi Livni speaks during a protest against the planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv, June 17, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu had instructed the coalition to vote against both nominees for the body — after forcing all but one coalition MK to drop out of the race — which would have effectively pushed off the election for 30 days. However, some Likud members revolted and cast their vote for the opposition candidate, Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar, resulting in her election to the body. The vote for the second MK on the panel will be held in the coming weeks.

Opposition figures decried Netanyahu’s attempts to manipulate the situation and prevent the Judicial Selection Committee from convening, leading to their halting the talks until the panel can convene.

This coming week, the Israel Bar Association is holding an election for its new chief, in a vote that has become part of the national political fault line, sharpened in the wake of the Knesset vote earlier this week. If Nave is chosen over interim head Becher, he is seen as likely to appoint two representatives to the Judicial Selection Committee who are favorable to the government’s overhaul plans.

Demonstrators use flares and chant during a march in Tel Aviv to protest the government’s judicial overhaul plans, on June 17, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

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, as was seen before the legislation was frozen in March to allow for negotiations on a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform.

Months of talks have not produced a breakthrough, and now appear to be frozen for the coming weeks as pressure is increasing within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

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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