Protests grow in Israel ahead of court vote: live updates

A column of thousands of anti-government protesters marched in Jerusalem on Saturday night, turning the city’s main street into a sea of ​​blue-and-white Israeli flags, to protest the far-right government’s plan to limit the judiciary.

In temperatures that were sometimes close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit, hundreds of protesters had marched since Tuesday night from Tel Aviv, a coastal city about 40 miles away, and camped out for four nights en route. Many more joined them over the next few days, and by Saturday the number of protesters had risen to at least 20,000, despite the searing heat.

When the march reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Saturday, protesters walked in 10 lines, forcing cars into a single lane of traffic. The column stretched for at least two miles and included people in motorized wheelchairs and at least one person on crutches.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” said Ilana Holzman, 65, a protester from Tel Aviv who joined the march for the last stage on Saturday.

“I think this is the only place to be right now,” Ms. Holzman said. “Not on the beach and not with air conditioning. Here you see the people of Israel at their best. It’s terribly hot, but they’re marching.”

The unusual sight reflects the intensity of emotion sweeping through Israeli society this weekend, as the ruling coalition prepares to pass legislation in the coming days that would limit the ways the Supreme Court can overturn government decisions.

Protesters camped out for the night on Friday near the Israeli village of Moshav Shoresh.Credit…Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The country’s largest union, the Histadrut, announced on Saturday night that it was holding an emergency meeting in response to the government’s plan, amid speculation it could call a general strike.

A tent city has sprung up in a Jerusalem park below the Parliament building as some of the protesters who had marched into the city settled down for what could be stormier days of protest.

Hundreds of thousands of other protesters simultaneously held rallies in dozens of cities across the country for the 29th consecutive week. A group representing military reservists from all branches of the military said some 10,000 Israelis said they would stop reporting for reserve duty if the law is passed, in addition to more than 1,000 air force members who have made similar threats in recent days.

And a group of former senior Israeli security officials released a joint letter calling on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone a vote on the law unless it is unanimously revised, citing protests by reservists and the resulting risks to Israel’s military capability.

Signing the letter were three former military leaders; five former heads of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service; three former directors of the Shin Bet, the internal security agency; and four former police commissioners.

Adding to the uncertainty on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu was taken to hospital to have a pacemaker implanted during a procedure in which he would be placed under sedation, his office said.

Negotiations to reach a last-minute compromise on the judicial dispute are still ongoing and could result in the plan being watered down or postponed. But for now, lawmakers are expected to hold a binding vote on the law on Monday in Parliament, where the ruling coalition has a four-seat majority.

The law would prevent the court from overruling the national government using the legal standard of “reasonableness,” a concept judges previously used to block ministerial appointments and challenge planning decisions, among other government measures.

The government and its supporters say the new legislation will improve democracy by restoring the balance of power between elected lawyers and unelected judges and giving lawyers more freedom to implement the policies that a majority of voters have chosen at the polls.

“The proper balance between the authorities has been disturbed in recent decades,” Netanyahu said in a speech on Thursday. “This balance must be restored so that the democratic choice of the people finds expression in the government that has been elected by the people.”

Netanyahu in Jerusalem this month.Credit…Pool photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

The court could still use other legal standards to challenge government decisions.

But large parts of the country, including protesters on Saturday, say the legislation undermines democracy because it will remove a key check on government overreach. They say this could allow the government – the most ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative in Israeli history – to build a much less pluralistic society.

“We are marching because the government, in short, is trying to turn us into a dictatorship,” said Navot Silberstein, 31, shortly after reaching the top of the steep hills west of Jerusalem on Friday evening.

“We are not going to live in a country where the government has too much power over us,” Silberstein added, his shirt soaked in sweat after walking for hours in the sun.

This disagreement is part of a much larger and long-standing social dispute over the nature and future of Israeli society. The ruling coalition and its base generally have a more religious and conservative outlook and see the court as an obstacle to that goal. The opposition tends to have a more secular and diversified view, and sees the court as a champion of its cause.

Some protesters fear the legislation will make it easier for the government to impose ultra-Orthodox Jewish practices in public life, such as forcing shops to close on Saturdays or enforcing gender segregation in public spaces. Others fear the law would make it easier for government leaders to get away with corruption, or for Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption and fraud, to escape punishment, a claim he strongly denies.

“The fear is that our country doesn’t look like it does today,” Ms. Holzman said of the judicial overhaul plan.

Similar mass protests in March prompted the government to put on hold, at least for now, other planned judicial changes. One of the suspended plans would have allowed Parliament to reverse court decisions; another would have given the government more leverage over who becomes a Supreme Court justice.

By Saturday, the number of protesters marching on Jerusalem had risen to at least 20,000.Credit…Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters