Hundreds of Thousands Protest Israel’s Government

01/22/2023 2:49 pm (act. 01/22/2023 03:00 pm)

More than 100,000 people demonstrated in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv against the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The biggest protest to date against the right-wing religious coalition that took office in late December has been directed mainly against plans that critics see as a targeted undermining of the justice system. Netanyahu, meanwhile, was forced on Sunday to follow a ruling by the highest court and fire one of his ministers.

Judges on Wednesday ruled Aryeh Deri’s appointment as Minister of Interior and Health “inappropriate” because of his criminal past. Deri is the leader of the strictly religious Shas party. Netanyahu greatly regretted the dismissal, which he only implemented “with a heavy heart”. The new justice minister, Yariv Levin, said he “will do whatever is necessary to correct the wrongs against Deri”. A few weeks ago, he had already laid out plans for targeted weakening of the Supreme Court.

The former Shas president is considered a close confidant of Netanyahu. His appointment was a crucial demand of his party during the coalition talks. Before the verdict, party members threatened to leave the government if Deri lost office. The party holds eleven of the ruling coalition’s 64 seats in parliament. The coalition changed a law so that Deri could become a minister despite his conviction.

The Deri case further fueled protests in Israel. Protesters gathered at various locations in central Tel Aviv for the third consecutive Saturday night. Among other things, they waved Israeli flags. The posters read “Stop the End of Democracy” and there were also pictures of Netanyahu with the words “Criminals”.

Israeli writer and peace activist David Grossman spoke of the demonstration of a “great awakening” by the public in Israel, the “beginning of the return of crippling internal emigration”. Regarding the controversial reform of the Judiciary, he compared the country to a house that is on fire. “I refuse to be homeless in my own country,” said Grossman.

Former Liberal Prime Minister Yair Lapid also attended the rally. Thousands of people also took to the streets in the cities of Jerusalem, Haifa and Be’er Sheva.

Most of all, they protested Attorney General Levin’s highly controversial plans. A majority in parliament should therefore be able to pass a law even if it violates the Basic Law in the opinion of the highest court. Levin also wants to change the composition of the panel that appoints the judges. The far-reaching changes could also play into Netanyahu’s hands in an ongoing corruption case against him.

Proponents of planned judicial reform feel vindicated by the judgment against Deri. For years, they accused the Supreme Court of excessive interference in political decisions.

The judges justified their judgment with Deri’s repeated conviction. They also claimed that last year, in a court case for tax crimes, he had assured the court that he would retire from politics. Deri himself denies this.

But there are also coalition crises elsewhere. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism Party boycotted Sunday’s cabinet meeting in protest against the demolition of an illegal outpost of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank. Defense Minister and Likud member Yoav Galant ordered the dissolution of the post, over objections from religious Zionists. In cabinet, Smotrich is actually responsible for West Bank settlements.

Settlements are vital for Religious Zionists to participate in government, Minister for National Missions Orit Strock, who is also a member of the party, told Kan radio station. She declined to give details.

The far-right Jewish Force coalition party declared its solidarity with Religious Zionists. She announced that she would insist on the previously postponed evacuation of the Palestinian camp at Khan al-Ahmar, near Jerusalem. Several international states urged Israel not to overthrow Khan al-Ahmar. They fear that efforts at a peace process could suffer another setback.