The crowd in front of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem had grown to more than a thousand by late morning, according to media estimates. Police were blocking another march from reaching the Supreme Court building.
After Netanyahu’s judicial retreat, Israelis regroup for next round
Police said they had arrested more than 40 protesters by noon. Officers also detained a driver who was reportedly seeking to plow his car into the crowd of demonstrators.
The actions marked the end of a three-month respite in the chaos after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu temporarily shelved the broader judicial revision package in March.
Organizers pledged a “day of disruption” Tuesday and pushed labor leaders to call a general strike. In social media posts, they called on citizens to “rally and safeguard Israeli democracy.” Demonstrations erupted in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities.
After one protest leader directed crowds to shut Ben Gurion Airport, Energy Minister Israel Katz called for him to be arrested “immediately for sedition and disruption of public order.”
There were no immediate reports of significant injuries. Demonstrators were on guard for more aggressive police intervention following calls by right-wing leaders for a crackdown on the protests that have blocked roads and, in some cases, targeted lawmakers’ homes. Netanyahu’s national security minister, the extremist settler leader Itamar Ben Gvir, has demanded police stop the home protests and use stun grenades and other harsh tactics against demonstrators.
Tel Aviv’s district police commander Ami Eshed resigned last week, saying he was unwilling to follow Ben Gvir’s directives and that the tactic could “have filled the emergency room.”
It was unclear how wide the protests would spread. The head of Israel’s main labor federation, Arnon Bar-David, beseeched Netanyahu to pull the legislation and “stop the chaos,” but stopped short of announcing a general strike.
The flaring anger reflected a widening split between ultra-Orthodox and religious nationalist voters and more secular Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Those long-simmering tensions erupted in fury soon after Netanyahu’s governing coalition took power in December with an agenda to limit the court’s ability to block its most controversial actions.
The proposed overhaul was hailed by Jewish settlers, who have chafed under court-imposed restrictions on their actions in the West Bank. They were joined by ultra-Orthodox leaders who want to protect their exemptions from military service and other religious privileges threatened by court oversight.
But opponents, including tech workers and other educated professionals in coastal cities, see the sweeping revisions as a threat to judicial independence that would nudge Israel toward autocracy.
The plan provoked an immense backlash when it was first introduced. Weeks of unprecedented street protests spooked investors and dinged Israel’s economic standing. Reserve air force pilots boycotted training missions, prompting warnings from the defense minister that the country’s military readiness could erode.
In March, following a nationwide general strike that briefly closed the airport, Netanyahu put the overall package on hold. But under pressure from hard-line ministers and following the collapse of compromise talks with opposition leaders, Netanyahu is now allowing one part of the plan to advance.
The measure advanced Tuesday would eliminate the Supreme Court’s ability to override government actions that judges deem to be outside the bounds of “reasonableness.”
Without a written constitution, the courts have used the “reasonableness” doctrine to block certain controversial decisions and appointments. Earlier this year, in a case that infuriated conservatives, the court forced Netanyahu to fire a key political ally — ultra-Orthodox party leader Aryeh Deri — from his twin appointments as health and interior minister.
The court ruled that Deri’s multiple criminal convictions, including for tax fraud in 2022, made his appointment “unreasonable in the extreme.” Netanyahu complied “with a heavy heart.”
Members of the government complain the doctrine is ambiguous, has no basis in statutory law and prevents it from carrying out the platform it was elected by voters to enact. Opponents say that without a written constitution, the court’s reasonableness standard is one of the few checks on government power.
“This is a time of major upheaval in Israel,” said Rivka Weill, a professor of constitutional law at Reichman University. “This government is adamant about pushing ahead with some kind of constitutional reform.”
Overturning the court’s powers of review would mean the return of Deri and other controversial appointments, Weill said. And it could allow the government a freer hand to fire independent judicial officials, including Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who has angered coalition members for not prosecuting more protesters. At a cabinet hearing Sunday, Baharav-Miara was berated by Ben Gvir and other officials who made clear their desire to remove her from office.
The preliminary vote on the measure narrowly passed the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, with all of the coalition members voting for it. But the judicial proposals have created divisions within the coalition itself.
Parties representing settlers and ultra-Orthodox voters have called for the measure to be passed before the Knesset’s summer recess. Others, including members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, have expressed caution.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Monday he thinks some coalition members, wanting to avoid a return to national chaos, could vote against the bill when it comes up for final passage.
Netanyahu is said to be open to watering down the proposal to tamp down the public backlash, according to Israeli media, a possibility that angers conservatives.
“Yesterday, the Knesset spoke very, very clearly,” lawmaker Simcha Rothman, a leader of the judicial push, said Tuesday in a radio interview. “I’m saying explicitly, I don’t believe that the bill is likely to undergo substantive change.”
Talks over a possible compromise package of judicial revisions brokered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog broke down last month amid disputes over the makeup of parliament’s committee that selects judges.
Lapid and Herzog called for those sessions to resume in light of Tuesday’s vote. “Come to your senses, set your egos aside and get back to talking,” Herzog said, according to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth.