The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israeli protesters return to streets as judicial overhaul stays on ‘pause’

Demonstrators display a sign depicting the faces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a protest Saturday opposing the government's plan to remake the country's judiciary. (Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters)
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TEL AVIV — Israelis opposed to their far-right government flooded the streets in protest Saturday, turning out in force for the first major demonstration since Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister, announced a pause to legislation that would overhaul the judiciary earlier this week.

Protesters showed up at more than 100 locations, according to the organizers, including in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where they hoisted Israeli and American flags. The U.S. flags were a nod to President Biden’s public opposition to the proposed legislation, which, if passed, could give the government a greater say in judicial appointments, including to the Supreme Court and those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial. The Supreme Court in Israel provides the sole check on legislative and executive power.

Biden on Tuesday said he hoped Netanyahu would “walk away from” the planned overhaul, which brought to the fore long-simmering tensions between Israel’s liberal and secular citizens, and its more right-wing and conservative factions.

Opponents of the legislation, from across Israel’s political spectrum, have denounced it as little more than a judicial coup. Protesters said they worried Netanyahu’s decision to “pause” the package was simply a delaying tactic — and that the government would move forward with the bills once the opposition died down.

“Netanyahu’s attempt to put the protesters to sleep failed,” the protest movement’s umbrella organization, the Umbrella Movement of Resistance Against Dictatorship in Israel, said in a statement Saturday. The group claimed that more than 450,000 Israelis demonstrated in the streets.

“We will continue to be in the streets until we guarantee that the State of Israel is a democracy,” the statement said.

The crisis has mobilized a wide cross-section of Israeli society, including tech companies, trade unions, and military reservists. Trade unions successfully announced a general strike last week, grinding Israel’s economy to a halt and contributing to Netanyahu’s decision to back down — for now.

Leaders of Israel’s security establishment have also entered the fray, issuing rare public statements warning that the crisis is a threat to national security. Thousands of reservists have vowed to refuse to report for service if the bills become law, a move that would hobble Israel’s army.

“This government was elected in democratic elections, and under the auspices of democracy, is working to destroy it,” Amos Malka, former head of Israel’s military intelligence unit, said at the protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday.

Malka condemned Netanyahu’s move a week ago to dismiss his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who came out against the legislation. Netanyahu has yet to initiate the formal process of dismissal, however, leaving Gallant in a state of limbo.

Several current and former members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party have joined Gallant in his opposition to the overhaul. And on Saturday, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, was among the right-wing figures who attended the protests.

Security officials are also on high alert ahead of the convergence of the Jewish holiday of Passover and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan next week.

On Saturday night, a Palestinian driver injured three Israelis near the West Bank village of Beit Ummar in a suspected ramming attack. The suspect was killed at the scene, Israeli police said. Earlier Saturday evening, Israeli police killed a Palestinian man in the Old City of Jerusalem, saying that he attempted to steal a police officer’s weapon and carry out an attack. Witnesses at the scene contested that account, Israeli media reported.

Itamar Ben Gvir, the far-right national security minister and a Netanyahu ally, praised Israeli security forces, saying that “any terrorist who tries to harm the Jews will have blood on his head.”

Ben Gvir reportedly threatened to quit Netanyahu’s governing coalition if he backed down from the legislation last week. To win his support for the pause, Netanyahu promised Ben Gvir he could form a “national guard” under his authority, according to a letter circulated online by members of the Knesset.

Some military and security officials have warned that the force could end up as Ben Gvir’s own private militia.

On Saturday, Israeli police clashed with protesters at several sites, using water cannons, cavalry and other tactics to disperse thousands of demonstrators.

“The coup leaders made the mistake of their lives. They gambled on our future and tore the nation to shreds,” Israeli author David Grossman said at a protest in Jerusalem outside the president’s residence on Saturday. “Ben Gvir gets his own private militia, why not? Fairy godmother Netanyahu fills all his wishes. Silence is no longer an option.”

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, is largely a figurehead. But he has hosted negotiations between the ruling coalition and opposition at his residence in Jerusalem. Several lawmakers have said that the coalition is not acting in good faith and is still insisting on giving the Knesset the power to appoint judges, according to Israeli media.