Citing the ‘hour of darkness’, more than 100,000 people rallied in Tel Aviv for the largest protest yet.

Critics of the new government’s proposals for sweeping reforms to Israel’s judicial system gathered Saturday night to protest for the third consecutive weekend, with a large demonstration in Tel Aviv and smaller events in other cities.

Police estimated that some 110,000 people gathered in Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street and Habima Square, making it the largest protest yet. The organizers estimated participation at about 150,000.

Thousands more demonstrated in cities across the country, including Jerusalem, Haifa, Beersheba, Herzliya and Modi’in.

Last week there were some 80,000 protesters in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square and several thousand more in Jerusalem and Haifa.

Many roads in central Tel Aviv were blocked due to the demonstration, and police forces came out in large numbers to maintain order.

Demonstration attendees are protesting against proposals by Justice Minister Yariv Levin to shake up the judiciary by severely curtailing the judicial review powers of the High Court of Justice and cementing political control over the appointment of judges.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government that his opponents say threaten democracy and freedoms, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 21, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

One of the central organizers of the demonstration, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, said it was acting “against the dangerous revolution that the new government plans to launch, a revolution that will destroy Israeli democracy.”

As the rallies were taking place, the head of the Knesset Committee on Constitution, Law and Justice was reportedly ready to speed up work on Levin’s legislation. According to Channel 12 news, a private proposal drafted by MK Simcha Rothman of the far-right Religious Zionism party will be presented to lawmakers for discussion on Sunday. Levin’s proposal is still being processed and the two are likely to be merged at some point.

Channel 12 said Netanyahu’s coalition wants a first reading of the bill in the Knesset before February 1.

“We have the right to shout”

Arriving at the protest after coming under fire for missing last week’s event, opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yair Lapid told reporters: “What you see here today is a demonstration in support of the country… People Those who love the country have come here today to defend their democracy, to defend their courts, to defend the idea of ​​coexistence and the common good”.

“We will not give up until we win,” he added.

Also present was former defense minister and IDF chief Benny Gantz, leader of the National Unity party.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Revered Israeli author David Grossman addressed the crowd. “The State of Israel was established so that there would be a place in the world where the Jewish person, the Jewish people, would feel at home. But if so many Israelis feel like strangers in their own country, obviously something is wrong,” he said.

“Now is the hour of darkness. Now is the time to stand up and shout: This land is in our souls. What happens in it today will determine what it will be and who we and our children will be,” Grossman said.

“Because if Israel becomes different and away from the hope and vision that created it, God forbid, in a sense, it will cease to be,” he warned.

Protesters against proposed changes to the justice system in Tel Aviv, on January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Moshe Ya’alon, a former defense minister and a key leader of the protests, addressed the crowd to call the desired government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “dictatorship of criminals.”

“A state in which the prime minister will appoint all the judges, has a name: dictatorship,” he said.

“In the same way that we stopped Syria and Egypt from destroying Israel, we will stop Netanyahu from doing the same,” he said. “We all enlisted because we care about the state and its future… Democracy will always win over dictatorship.”

High-tech chief executive Eynat Guez told the rally that foreign investment in Israeli companies, a key ingredient for the success of Israel’s high-tech sector, will be threatened if Israel’s democracy is eroded.

Citing $54 billion as the amount of foreign money invested in Israel in the last 3 years, Guez said that the erosion of Israel’s democracy will scare away investors. “That $54 billion will not be here and the tens of thousands of workers who joined high tech will not be here.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly said that his government received a mandate from voters in the November elections to enact his party’s plans for sweeping judicial reform.

Also speaking to the crowd, Dina Zilber, a former deputy attorney general, said that “night descends on Israel.”

“It is a real alarm… We are not imagining it,” he said. “If you’re the government, think hard about what got all these people out of their chairs” and come here tonight.

Avi Himi, president of the Israel Lawyers Association, told the gathering: “They never received the mandate to change the regime, they never received the mandate to destroy democracy.”

“It is our right to shout, it is our obligation to shout, that’s how it is in a democracy.”

Protesters against proposed changes to the justice system at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

‘Democracies fall slowly and quietly’

In Jerusalem, several thousand people demonstrated near the President’s Residence.

The protesters chanted “People are determined: this is not Iran”, “We are drawing a red line for Levin”, “We will not stay silent as long as there is inequality” and simply “Democracy”.

The protesters also waved Israeli flags while singing the national anthem.

“A majority does not legitimize tyranny” and “Red line: right and left against destruction”, read some banners.

A student band performed followed by speakers, including several students, as well as Shaul Meridor, son of Dan Meridor, who has held various ministerial posts in previous administrations.

Protesters against the Netanyahu-led government gather outside the president’s residence in Jerusalem, on January 21, 2023. (AH/Times of Israel)

“Democracies fall slowly and quietly,” Meridor said. “We have to fight and fight. This is not about Arabs or Jews, religious or secular, this is our home that we have to protect.”

Judge Nava Ben-Or, a former head of the Jerusalem District Court, listed the judicial reforms suggested by the government and listed the ways in which she said they ignored basic principles of democracy.

A handful of pro-Netanyahu protesters holding banners reading “left-wing traitors” held a counter-demonstration, but police kept them away from the main protest.

Several protesters said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking far-reaching judicial reform in a bid to avoid his ongoing corruption trial.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

“What happens at the end of the day is that we have a person who doesn’t care about the state and is prepared to do a lot of things to get out of his trial,” said Assaf Abrahamovitz, 44, of Hadar Am. It will hurt everyone.”

One protester, American expatriate Robert Barack, said he would be coming out to protest the “fascist government” that he said threatened civil liberties.

“It’s a scary time,” he said. “After 50 years of living here, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Barack waved a rainbow flag emblazoned with the Star of David and marched alongside protesters from the gay community.

Protesters against proposed changes to the justice system in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, on January 21, 2023. (Jamal Awad/Flash90)

“The Zionist dream includes a state with equality… I have a gay son, now he is in the United States, getting married. He can’t do that here, he’ll probably stay there,” he said, adding that “the ministers of this government want to discriminate based on sexual orientation.”

Among the protesters were some anti-occupation protesters, despite criticism that connecting the evening demonstrations to Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians may confuse the message and alienate some people.

Protesters against proposed changes to the justice system in Tel Aviv’s Habima Square, on January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I believe that there is no such thing as a luxury democracy. We either have democracy or we don’t,” explained Ziva Weiler, 67, who came from Rehovot.

Gantz had called on Israelis across the political spectrum to come out on Saturday in a video posted to social media on Friday.

“No matter what their political positions are, on Saturday night everyone will take to the streets to tell the government: it is possible to reach broad agreements [to draft reforms more acceptable to the public] but we must not ignore what the founders of the country wrote in the Declaration of Independence, and what we have built here for 75 years,” he said.

“We march to say yes to reforms and no to retaliatory measures that will dismantle Israeli resilience and democracy,” he added.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

MK Gideon Sa’ar, the number 2 in National Unity, said on Friday he would also attend the protest, calling on members of his right-wing New Hope subfaction to join the rally after being absent from the latest rally.

“We are at the top of the fight for the future of Israel. There is neither left nor right in the fight to protect the democratic regime. This fateful struggle of the citizens of the country is for the benefit of the future of our children on this earth, a struggle imposed on us by a dangerous and rampant government,” Sa’ar wrote to party activists via the Telegram messaging app.

Later that night, protesters in Tel Aviv held a torchlight march down several main streets of the city. After the march, the police reopened all the roads that had been closed by the demonstration.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against the new far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP)

The latest demonstrations come days after government officials reacted with anger and promises of swift reforms to the High Court’s decision on Wednesday of disqualify Shas leader Aryeh Deri as minister for his criminal convictions. The coalition is now Fight looking for a way to circumvent the decision and give Deri another high-ranking role.

After the huge protest last week, Netanyahu played down the criticism at the weekly cabinet meeting and argument that the planned changes would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end. He also maintained that the government is fulfilling the will of the people.

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