Record numbers join protests in Israel against judicial overhaul

Israeli police force becomes latest institution to be dragged into chaos as demonstrations divide society

Saturday's protests could be the largest in Israel's history. Getty
Powered by automated translation

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in one of the largest protests in Israel's history at the weekend, as demonstrations continued across the country against government plans for radical judicial reforms.

Opponents say the proposed overhaul would deliver a fatal blow to democracy in the country.

Speaking at one of the rallies on Saturday, opposition leader Yair Lapid described the moment as Israel's “greatest crisis”.

“A wave of terrorism is hitting us, our economy is crashing, money is escaping the country. Iran just signed yesterday a new agreement with Saudi Arabia. But the only thing this government cares about is crushing Israeli democracy,” he said.

An estimated 200,000 people turned out in Tel Aviv, and record numbers showed up in the economic powerhouse city of Haifa, reports said.

In Be'er Sheva, which is seen as a stronghold of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party Likud, there were 8,000.

The government says the reforms are necessary to rebalance political power away from what it views as a disproportionately powerful and anti-right wing judiciary.

Protesters in Tel Aviv. Getty

On Sunday, Israeli media reported an unnamed senior government official as saying the protests were being funded from abroad.

Saturday's demonstrations were the 10th consecutive march in a string of protests that started with the formation of Israel's new government, the most right-wing in the country's history.

Demonstrations against the judicial reforms have also been taking place elsewhere. These included mass strikes that blocked the country's main airport, ports and motorways as groups from across Israeli society sound the alarm.

Most recently, the police force has been dragged into the dispute, after its commander in Tel Aviv was removed and demoted on Thursday for what senior government officials viewed as his overly tolerant approach to the demonstrations.

On Saturday, protesters applauded as the former commander, Amichai Eshed, walked through the demonstrations in Tel Aviv. Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai later said the move was a “mistake”.

Speaking to crowds in Tel Aviv on Saturday, former police chief Moshe Karadi said “Israel is facing a danger it has not faced” since the 1948 war.

Other key groups that have voiced concern include members of the country's tech community, one of Israel's most important economic blocs, and even members of the military, some of whom say they will not serve the government if it presses ahead with the measures.

On Wednesday, tech unicorn Riskified said it was taking $500 million out of Israel as a result of the government measures and offering relocation packages to staff.

Last week, the head of Israel's army told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the prospect of increased defections in the military could harm the effectiveness of the country's forces.

It came after 37 out of 40 reserve pilots in an elite air force squadron said they would boycott a coming training session in opposition to the legal reforms.

Police confront protesters amid the demonstrations in Israel. EPA

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has been to striving find a compromise and said last week that the country's politicians are “closer than ever” to reaching a compromise, although details of a potential arrangement are yet to be made clear.

On Thursday, the president gave a speech in which he called on the administration to abandon the “oppressive” measures.

On Sunday, Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli hit back, saying the speech was “hysterical”.

“I respect the president very much, but his speech on Thursday was hysterical and did not contribute to calming things,” he added.

The plans include a new “override clause” that would allow parliament to re-legislate — by simple majority — laws that the Supreme Court rejects and give the government control over the selection of judges.

Other reforms include allowing ministers to select their own legal advisers, ending a previous arrangement whereby such counsel would come from the Justice Ministry.

Updated: March 12, 2023, 12:11 PM