Tens of thousands of protesters marched on Jerusalem on Saturday evening and hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities in a final show of force aimed at blocking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial change.
Also on Saturday, more than 100 former Israeli security chiefs signed a letter urging the Israeli prime minister to block the legislation, and thousands of additional military reservists said they would no longer report for duty in protest against the plan.
In sweltering heat that reached 33 C (91 F), the procession in Jerusalem turned the city’s main gate into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags as marchers completed the final leg of a four-day, 70 km (45 mi) trek from Tel Aviv to Israel’s parliament.
The marchers, who numbered from hundreds to thousands as the march progressed, were greeted by crowds of welcoming protesters in Jerusalem before setting up camp in rows of small white tents outside the Knesset, or parliament, ahead of Monday’s expected vote. Meanwhile, the coastal city of Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial and cultural capital, as well as Be’er Sheba, Haifa and Netanya, were flooded to the tune of hundreds of thousands of people.
Netanyahu and his far-right allies argue that the revisions are needed to curb the excessive powers of unelected judges. But his critics say the plan will destroy the country’s system of checks and balances and push it towards authoritarian rule.
US President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to stop the plan and seek broad consensus.
The proposed overhaul has drawn sharp criticism from business and medical leaders, and a growing number of military reservists in key units have said they would stop reporting for duty if the plan is approved, raising concerns that the nation’s security interests could be threatened. An additional 10,000 reservists announced a suspension of duty Saturday night, according to “Brothers in Arms,” a protest group representing retired soldiers.
More than 100 top former security chiefs, including retired military commanders, police commissioners and heads of intelligence agencies, joined the calls on Saturday, signing a letter to Netanyahu accusing him of compromising Israel’s military and urging him to block the legislation.
Among the signatories were former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and former army chief and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon. Both are political rivals of Netanyahu.
“The legislation is crushing what Israeli society holds in common, tearing people apart, dispersing the IDF and dealing fatal blows to Israel’s security,” the former officials wrote.
“The legislative process violates the social contract that has existed for 75 years between the Israeli government and the thousands of reserve officers and soldiers of the land, air, sea and intelligence branches who have volunteered for many years to defend the democratic state of Israel, and now with broken hearts announce that they are suspending their service.”
Israel Katz, a senior cabinet minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the bill would pass on Monday one way or another.
“I represent citizens who are not willing to cancel their voices because of threats of denial of service” or by those blocking airports, highways and train stations, he told Channel 12 TV. “There is a clear attempt to use the military services to force the government to change policy.”
After seven months of continuous and intense protests across the country, the grassroots protest movement has reached a fever pitch.
Parliament is expected to vote on Monday on a measure that would limit the Supreme Court’s supervisory powers by preventing judges from overturning government decisions on the grounds that they are “unreasonable”.
Proponents say the current “reasonableness” standard gives judges too much power over elected officials’ decisions. But critics say removing the standard, which is used only in rare cases, would allow the government to make arbitrary decisions, make inappropriate appointments or sacks and open the door to corruption.
Monday’s vote will be the first major piece of legislation to be passed.
The overhaul also calls for other major changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected.
Protesters, who make up a broad swath of Israeli society, see the revisions as a power grab by Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and various personal and political grievances by his associates, who want to deepen Israel’s control over the occupied West Bank and make controversial draft-exempt men permanent.
In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu doubled down on the revisions and dismissed as baseless accusations that the plan would destroy Israel’s democratic foundations.
“This is an attempt to mislead you on something that has no basis in reality,” he said. Alarmed by the growing number of reservists, the country’s defense minister, Yves Gallant, called for Monday’s vote to be delayed, according to Israeli media reports. It was unclear if others would join him.