Thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday night in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities to protest against the government’s plan to overhaul the judicial system, which they see as a threat to democracy and the rule of law.
The protesters waved Israeli flags and chanted slogans such as “Democracy, democracy” and “Israel will not be a dictatorship”. They also carried signs that read “Save the courts” and “Stop the coup”.
The demonstrations marked the tenth consecutive week of protests against the judicial reform package, which was unveiled in January by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which includes extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
The reform package has split the nation and triggered one of the biggest protest movements in Israel‘s history. According to the organizers, half a million Israelis participated in the protests on Saturday, which would amount to about 5% of Israel’s population of just over 9 million.
The protesters accuse Netanyahu of pushing the legislation in order to escape corruption charges he is facing in court. Netanyahu denies that, saying the trials are collapsing on their own, and that the changes are necessary to curb overreach by unelected judges.
The Dangerous Power over the Supreme Court
The proposed legislation would give Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority. It would also give the government the power to nominate judges, which currently rests with a committee composed of judges, legal experts and politicians. It would remove power and independence from government ministries’ legal advisers, and take away the power of the courts to invalidate “unreasonable” government appointments.
Opponents of the overhaul fear it would weaken the country’s courts and erode the judiciary’s ability to check the power of the country’s other branches of government. They also argue that it would violate Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a de facto constitution.
Israel does not have a written constitution, but a set of what are called Basic Laws. About two out of three (66%) Israelis believe the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws, and about the same proportion (63%) say they support the current system of nominating judges, according to a poll last month for the Israel Democracy Institute.
The legislation will not move forward before parliament returns from summer recess in October. However, the protesters have vowed to keep up pressure on the Netanyahu government until it drops the plan.
Some prominent figures have joined the protests, including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is now the leader of the opposition. He said: “The only thing this government cares about is crushing Israeli democracy.”
President Isaac Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, has also urged the Netanyahu government to take the judicial overhaul legislation off the table. He said: “This is not a matter of right or left, but of preserving our democratic system.”