Right-Wing Israelis Come Out in Force to Support Judicial Overhaul
JERUSALEM — In a defiant show of force, masses of right-wing demonstrators converged on Jerusalem on Thursday evening in support of an Israeli government plan to overhaul the judiciary that has deeply divided the country.
The crowd was largely made up of Israelis from the religious Zionist camp. Many said they wanted a more Jewish Israel that put their brand of traditional values ahead of the liberalism championed by the country’s old, secular elites. Those elites, in the demonstrators’ view, control an overactive judiciary, the mainstream media and the bureaucratic establishment.
Whole families came from all over the country and the occupied West Bank on more than a thousandbuses arranged by the organizers, and in private vehicles. The atmosphere was peaceful and mostly upbeat in what was most likely one of Israel’s largest right-wing demonstrations in nearly two decades — a counterweight to months of protest by the overhaul’s opponents.
But despite the turnout — up to 200,000 people, according to estimates in the Israeli news media — the prospects for the government’s judicial plan remained unclear.
The Israeli Parliament is set to reconvene early next week after a spring recess, as government representatives continue negotiations with opposition party members under the auspices of Israel’s mostly ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, in an effort to reach a compromise. The talks came after mass protests by opponents of the government plan rocked the country.
A month ago, before the recess, and with the country in political, social and economic upheaval, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would delay his government’s campaign to exert greater control over the judiciary until the summer session of Parliament, allowing time for dialogue.
Critics say the plan would weaken the country’s Supreme Court, remove protections for minorities and undermine the democratic character of the state. Supporters say the changes are necessary to give more power to voters and their elected representatives and curb the authority of an unelected judiciary.
“We have felt all our lives that there is no democracy in Israel and that the Supreme Court rules, no matter what slip we put into the ballot box,” said Yael Zilberstein, 36, an optometrist and mother of seven who came to the demonstration with her extended family from the largely religious West Bank settlement of Beit El.
Ms. Zilberstein said she voted in November for the Religious Zionism party that now sits in the government. “But it was meaningless,” she said of her vote, because she expects the Supreme Court to overrule any government decisions its judges do not like.
Organizers billed Thursday’s demonstration as the Million March.
Demonstrators filled the streets outside the Supreme Court and the Parliament building after organizers urged them to not to allow the opposition to “steal” last November’s election or to dismiss them as “second-class citizens.” That election returned Mr. Netanyahu to power, this time at the head of the most right-wing and religiously conservative governing coalition in Israel’s history.
The rally drew a crowd similar in size to the anti-government protests that have taken place over the past 16 weeks. Demonstrators said they were there to support the government and to urge it to go ahead with its plan for the judiciary — and not buckle to outside pressure.
“Stop being afraid,” they chanted. Some walked over a large banner featuring portraits of Supreme Court judges that had been laid on the road.
The event was organized in part by leading members of Mr. Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and other parties in his coalition, including some who participated, prompting commentators to say that it seemed almost like a protest by the government against itself.
But numerous polls have indicated that the majority of Israelis do not support the package of judicial proposals presented by the government, and Mr. Netanyahu paused his legislative blitz in the face of wide unrest.
Pilots and other military reservists from elite army intelligence and special operations units warned that they would not report for duty under a government they deemed no longer democratic. Some high-tech executives began to transfer money abroad. And the main labor union called a snap general strike, abruptly grinding much of country to a halt.
The protesters on Thursday tried to send a competing message.
“We are demonstrating to give the government the strength to do what we elected them for,” said Omri Yitzhaki, a Likud supporter and systems analyst from Jerusalem who was wrapped in an Israeli flag. “We fear they will give in.”
Keynote speakers at the rally included the Likud justice minister, Yariv Levin; the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party; and Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister and leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party.
Mr. Levin told the crowd that he thought it was possible to carry out judicial change through agreement — eliciting some booing — but that so far, the opposition had refused to accept any of the government’s proposals. He then led a chant of “The people demand judicial reform!”
Mr. Netanyahu did not attend the rally but sent a message of support. He has said there is no deadline for the negotiations, only a goal of reaching consensus.
But with Parliament reconvening on Monday, one of the most contentious pieces of legislation — essentially giving the governing coalition the power to choose Supreme Court judges in a way that critics say would politicize the top court — is ready to be brought for a final vote. It could be passed within hours, should the government decide to press ahead.
The rally opened with religious songs and prayers led by a rabbi. The master of ceremonies and one of the main organizers was Avichay Buaron, a Likud lawmaker. In a recent interview he said that Israel was at a crossroads and that the turmoil gripping the country was “a classic division between conservatives and liberals.”
The country, he said, is being ruled by a “shadow government of judges and a judicial bureaucracy.” And the delay called by Mr. Netanyahu, he said, is frustrating for a large swath of the public.
“It’s as if our victory at the ballot box is not worth anything,” he said. “People are saying, ‘What’s the point of going to elections?’”
But the social, religious and political divisions now cleaving Israeli society were apparent on Thursday even within the government.
Ultra-Orthodox supporters of the judicial overhaul, whose political leaders are partners in the coalition, largely stayed away from the demonstration. An editorial in a leading ultra-Orthodox newspaper on Thursday urged them not to participate, saying that the ultra-Orthodox have a far different vision for the country than the religious Zionists.
Myra Noveck contributed reporting.