Israel braces for protests as far-right government targets courts

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TEL AVIV – Tens of thousands of Israelis flooded a central public square in Tel Aviv to protest the country’s far-right government, which, in the two weeks since taking office, has rushed through plans to overhaul the judiciary system and intensified an internal political crisis that critics warn could turn violent.

At least 1,000 Israeli police are stationed across the city, where an estimated 80,000 Israelis braved a rain storm to gather Saturday evening at the city’s Habima Square, hoisting posters with slogans like “We won’t become Iran,” and “shame!”

Smaller protests were underway in front of the President’s residence in Jerusalem, in Haifa and in other cities across the country. Officers were to be armed with water cannons and directives from the newly appointed, far-right national security minister to crack down aggressively on demonstrators displaying “inciting” signs or blocking roads — code, protester organizers warn, for permission to use excessive force.

Opposition to the new government began almost immediately after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in November elections after a year and a half on the sidelines, propelled by a bloc of once-fringe, far-right partners. In the two weeks since his inauguration, his government has embarked on a blitz of legislative initiatives, characterizing them as a “revision” to right the “imbalance among the three branches of government.”

But critics say the measures amount to a “coup d’etat” that will destroy the nation’s system of checks and balances to save Netanyahu from prosecution in three separate corruption cases and embolden his extremist religious partners to advance legislation supporting the expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank and the application of conservative Jewish law to public institutions.

If carried out, the judicial overhaul announced by the government this week will be a “fatal blow” to Israeli democracy, nullifying the rule of law and legal protections for individual rights, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said at a conference Thursday.

“This is an unbridled attack on the judicial system, as if it were an enemy that must be attacked and subdued,” she said.

Preeminent among the rights in peril, critics say, is the freedom to protest — a sacrosanct practice in a notoriously argumentative country, kept intact even during harsh covid lockdowns two years ago, when courts ruled in favor of demonstrators who, during Netanyahu’s previous rule, called for his ouster.

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The new protest movement is driven by left-wing activists and prominent opposition figures from the political center and left who warn that the government, though democratically elected, has overreached its mandate in attempts to erode Israel’s democratic institutions which, surveys show, roughly half the country faith must be preserved.

“If you continue the way you are going, the responsibility for the civil war brewing in Israeli society will be on you,” Benny Gantz, former defense minister, told Netanyahu in a televised statement this week, calling on Israelis to take to the street .

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said that disagreements are acceptable, but that “you also have to delineate the limits to the conversation … there is no permission to block roads or other things that impose harm on citizens.” His statement came a day after a man from the predominantly ultra-Orthodox Israeli city of Elad attempted to use his car to run over anti-government protesters in the southern city of Beersheva.

“This is how democracy collapses, in one day,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the incident.

Ahead of Saturday’s protest, Israeli police warned of “public disorder” — a rhetorical nod to the hard line national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who issued new directives to police this week to use water cannons against demonstrators and detain participants who hold “inciting ” posters or block roads. He has also banned the public display of Palestinian flags, which he equated to supporting terrorism.

Tzvika Foghel, a legislator for Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party, said that leaders of the opposition, including two former Israeli army chiefs of staff, “should be arrested and put in handcuffs” for calling for protests.

Roee Neuman, one of the protest organizers, said the government is going to unprecedented lengths to “delegitimize” the movement.

“In the past 10 years in protests from all sectors — the right-wing, the ultra-orthodox, you name it — there have never been statements like that, ever,” he said.

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Critics say that Netanyahu and his political allies have an alternative perspective on the rule of law because, for years, they have been targets of police investigations. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on multiple charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and is currently on trial in three cases of corruption. In January 2022, Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who has been appointed interior minister and minister of health, was convicted of tax fraud.

Ben Gvir, a West Bank settler leader who has for decades defended Israeli youths accused of violently attacking Palestinians, was deemed unfit for mandatory military service due to his extremist activism and was convicted for racist incitement against Arabs and support of terror groups.

Netanyahu’s proposed “judicial revision” includes a top-to-bottom transformation of Israel’s judiciary. It would enable the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority vote. And it would allow ministers greater influence over who serves on the courts — including those overseeing Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

“The king can do no wrong. There are no checks on the government,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a renowned Israeli jurist and professor of law at Hebrew University. “We are in the midst of an attempt by the political majority to perpetrate regime change, transforming Israel from a country with a functional liberal democracy to a populist-authoritarian, nationalist-religious nation characterized mainly by absolute power in the hands of the majority. “

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