'It's a sad day'

Chaos and condemnation follow vote

Reasonableness legislation passes knesset as nation erupts.

Police fire water cannons at anti-overhaul protesters on Jerusalem's Begin Highway.
Photo: Times of Israel
Police fire water cannons at anti-overhaul protesters on Jerusalem's Begin Highway.Photo: Times of Israel

(Times of Israel) – Activists raging against the government’s passage of the first part of its plan to remake the judiciary faced off against police for hours in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, blocking freeways and promising to ratchet up demonstrations, as lawmakers vowed to push ahead with the rest of the contentious program.

On Monday, the Knesset passed in a 64-0 vote a bill barring the judiciary from using the “reasonableness” yardstick to invalidate government decisions. A watchdog group then announced that it was immediately filing a petition against the law, and Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said he would also challenge the legislation in the courts.

Using mounted police and water cannons, authorities only managed to clear the major Tel Aviv thoroughfare after 1am, though thousands continued to demonstrate at nearby Kaplan junction, where some 15,000 had massed hours earlier in reaction to the government coalition’s contentious “reasonableness” bill being approved on its final two votes.

In Jerusalem, police also used officers on horseback and powerful blasts of skunk water to drive off protesters who rallied first outside the Knesset and later blocked the Begin freeway and demonstrated near the Supreme Court building, an institution that government critics say will be left toothless by the judicial overhaul, rending Israel’s democracy defunct.

“We will continue to dig in on this fight, which will only intensify and in the end Israel will go back to being a democracy,” protest organisers said in a statement shortly after the bill passed. “Any Israeli going out into the street to protest is a hero.”

At least 33 people were arrested throughout the day and night in demonstrations in the two cities, police said.

Activists and Hebrew-language media reports accused the police of using excessive violence and brutal tactics largely unseen during 29 weeks of large protests against the overhaul.

There were also a number of incidents of violence allegedly aimed at protesters or by them, including a driver that ploughed through a group blocking a road north of Tel Aviv, injuring three.

Protests intensified in the late afternoon after the bill passed in its final readings, with Lapid promising to petition the High Court the next day as the coalition celebrated its win, which came over a month after the collapse of talks aimed at finding a compromise on the overhaul.

“It’s a sad day,” Lapid said after the vote. “This is not a victory for the coalition. This is the destruction of Israeli democracy.

“We may have lost a battle but we will win the war,” said Benny Gantz, head of the opposition National Unity party.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected such criticism. “Today we did a necessary democratic act, an act that is intended to return a measure of balance between the branches of government,” he said.

He vowed to seek renewed dialogue with the political opposition and called for┬ánational unity. “Let us reach agreements,” he said. “I extend my hand in a call for peace and mutual respect between us.”

Supreme Court president Esther Hayut and other senior justices cut short an official trip to Germany in order to return home and hold a hearing on petitions against the first piece of legislation from the government’s wide-reaching judicial overhaul.

Hayut was leading a delegation of Israeli justices visiting the German courts and was scheduled to make a speech at an event marking 75 years since the establishment of the State of Israel.

In a statement to Kan, the judicial authority said that the trip to Germany was being cut short “given the latest developments and in view of the petitions that have already been submitted”.

Hayut was accompanied to Germany by fellow justices Uzi Vogelman, Yitzhak Amit, Noam Sohlberg, Daphne Barak-Erez and Anat Baron.

The petitions could set up a major showdown between the branches of government in the coming months. The High Court is likely to deliberate the bill in the near future, and justices could potentially issue an interim order freezing the legislation. Based on her position regarding the overhaul plan, Attorney-General Galia Baharav-Miara is not expected to defend the legislation in court.

In its High Court petition, the Movement for Quality Government in Israel (MQG) argued that the law passed “is unconstitutional because it fundamentally changes the basic structure of Israeli parliamentary democracy and the nature of the regime, while de facto abolishing the judiciary and seriously damaging the delicate fabric of the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances in the State of Israel”.

MQG also claimed that the legislative process was flawed since not enough time had been given in the parliamentary committee controlled by the coalition to properly debate and weigh the legislation.

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