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Masses expected at 36th week of anti-overhaul protests ahead of key court showdown

Tens of thousands of Israelis were expected to protest throughout the country Saturday against the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation for a 36th straight week, ahead of a key showdown in the courts next week.

Organizers said the demonstration would “provide an answer to Ohana,” a reference to a speech by Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana this week, in which Ohana suggested the coalition may not accept a High Court of Justice ruling next week if it strikes down the recently passed controversial “reasonableness” law. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu retweeted a video of the speech.

An unprecedented full 15-justice panel of the High Court is slated to hear the petitions against the law on September 12. A variety of government ministers and other figures have warned of the potential for chaos if the court strikes down the law passed by the Knesset to curb the court’s authority, setting up a potential constitutional crisis.

Demonstrations are to be held at dozens of locations across the country. The Tel Aviv protest begins with a march from Habima Square to the central rally at Kaplan Street at 8 p.m.

In addition to the annual weekly protests, several thousand people completed a three-day “democracy march” in northern Israel from Safed to Tel Hai near the Lebanese border to protest the overhaul.

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“The march to the north allows protesters who normally stay at home to also give a message: the state of Israel will remain Jewish and democratic,” Prof. Karine Nahon, one of the participants told the Ynet news site. “The event provides further glue to the democratic bloc that has emerged in the last eight months.”

צעדת הצפון – היום השלישי והאחרון
חניית צהרים: בית הלל
עצרת בערב: האריה השואג תל חי
שרשור תמונות וקטעי וידאו ????????
קרדיט: רוני שפירא

— Or-ly Barlev ~ אור-לי ברלב (@orlybarlev) September 9, 2023

Also Saturday, protest leader Shikma Bressler apologized for apparently referring to far-right elements of the government as “Nazis.”

Speaking on a panel on Friday. Bressler said that “it is forbidden to hold a dialogue with Nazis, whether they are Jews or not.”

Bressler had been speaking about how no consensus could be reached with far-right members of  Netanyahu’s coalition, an apparent reference to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

She gave an example of the fact that at a pro-government rally in Jerusalem on Thursday, there was widespread use of stickers extolling Jewish terrorists.

At the protest in front of the Supreme Court, many participants could be seen donning stickers saying that Jewish terrorists such as Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994; Amiram Ben Uliel, who is in prison for the 2015 deadly firebombing of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma; extremist rabbi Meir Kahane; and Rabin’s killer Yigal Amir “were right.”

Nevertheless, Bressler on Saturday apologized for using the word “Nazi.”

Shikma Bressler and anti-overhaul activists marching northern Israel as part of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul, on September 7, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)*

At the Jerusalem pro-overhaul protest, Smotrich and other ministers warned the High Court against striking down part of the coalition’s legislative package after the hearings, with Smotrich telling Chief Justice Esther Hayut that she had better not “dare” to overturn the law.

There were no official turnout figures, but some 10,000 people were estimated to attend the protest, lower than at previous pro-government demonstrations and far lower than the mass anti-overhaul rallies held in Tel Aviv every week.

In a brief to the court on Friday, the government warned that nullification of a Basic Law will lead Israel to anarchy.

In its brief, the government argued that the court lacks statutory authority to annul Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, and therefore any such verdict would be based on unlegislated and unclear “basic principles.”

“All government institutions may argue that they have the right to determine what these principles mean. It is a short path from here to anarchy,” the brief said.

In a statement following the submission of the response — which was written on behalf of the government, Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin — Levin said the government “believes that since the State of Israel is a democratic nation, the authority of governmental institutions and its origin are vested in the sovereign, which is the people – the citizens of Israel,” who elect the Knesset.

Right-wing Israelis, one carrying a sign showing Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and the slogan “The ruling elite,” attend a rally in support of the government’s judicial overhaul, outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The “reasonableness” law prohibits the courts from reviewing government action using the judicial standard of reasonableness, whereby it can determine that a decision was invalid because it was made without properly assessing key considerations, or while using improper considerations.

Opponents of the law argue that it could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the reasonableness standard it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials.

Ministers and coalition MKs have argued that the law is necessary to stop the High Court from asserting its own worldview on government decisions and actions, and have said that the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials will still be subject to other tools in administrative law.

The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program which has been passed by the Knesset so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

A court ruling striking down a Basic Law would be unprecedented. Members of the government’s coalition have been noncommittal as to whether they would abide by such a ruling, thereby potentially causing a constitutional crisis.