Almost 200,000 supporters of Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government held a protest in front of the Knesset parliament in Jerusalem on Thursday night under the slogan: “The people demand judicial reform.”
Justice minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the judicial overhaul who has threatened to resign if the legislation is not passed, made it clear he was not backing down.
“We are here on this stage with 64 mandates to right the wrong. No more inequality, no one-sided judicial system, no court whose judges are above the Knesset and above the government,” he said.
Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the far-right Religious Zionist party, told the crowd that a majority back reforming the judiciary.
“The people demand legal reform and they will get legal reform. I want to say here on this stage: we will not give up,” he said. “Everyone is here because they love Israel and they want to fix it. I promise and all the coalition members promise, with God’s help we will fix it.”
Mr Netanyahu encouraged the demonstration but chose not to attend.
“I am deeply moved by the tremendous support of the national camp that came to Jerusalem this evening en masse,” he tweeted. “All of us, 64 mandates that brought on our victory, are first-class citizens! You warmed my heart very much, and I thank each one of you!” Government supporters have been referring to themselves as second-class citizens in response to the wave of antigovernment protests that have swept the country.
Opponents of the government’s plans to weaken the powers of the judiciary argue that it will end the traditional system of checks and balances, endangering Israeli democracy. They have succeeded in bringing hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets in weekly protests.
Thursday’s demonstration, dubbed the Million Man March, was an attempt by the right to show there is a wellspring of popular support for the coalition’s radical agenda.
More than a thousand buses were hired to bring right-wing activists to Jerusalem from all over the country. Crowdfunding campaigns in Israel and abroad helped cover the costs, along with contributions from coalition parties.
There is no doubt that the protest was an impressive show of support for the coalition but it is unclear how Mr Netanyahu will use it. He could utilise it to push through with the controversial legislation or as a negotiating tactic, arguing that he is unable to make far-reaching concessions.
Some leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis and newspapers urged their community not to participate, even though two ultra-Orthodox parties are members of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition. An editorial in the leading ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Ne’eman said: “We clearly support the right wing at the behest of our rabbis, but we are not affiliated with them, nor are we campaigning with them.”
The judicial overhaul is on hold after completing most of its legislative process during the Knesset’s winter session. The Knesset summer session opens next week but Mr Netanyahu has promised not to advance the overhaul while the compromise dialogue, hosted by president Yitzhak Herzog, continues with representatives of the coaltion and opposition trying to draw up a compromise.
The main sticking point remains the government’s demand to appoint high court judges by ensuring a majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.