Thousands gather for mass rally to ‘safeguard Israeli democracy’ from Netanyahu


Thousands of protesters gathered on Saturday evening for a mass demonstration outside the Tel Aviv Museum against looming legislative efforts by the incoming coalition that would grant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immunity from prosecution and radically limit the powers of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu is attempting to finalize deals with his likely coalition partners ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and is widely reported to be seeking their support for legislative moves to safeguard him from prosecution in three corruption cases.

Tens of thousands of people were expected at the rally Saturday night under the banner “Stopping the Immunity Law — A Defensive Shield for Democracy.” The event was primarily organized by the largest opposition party — Blue and White — alongside Meretz and the Labor Party. Both Arab-Israeli political parties announced Saturday afternoon that they, too, would participate after an outcry over Blue and White’s alleged failure to include non-Jewish representatives among the speakers at the demonstration.

Blue and White’s No.2 Yair Lapid told Channel 12 news ahead of the rally that the protest was not about left and right. “That’s how Netanyahu wants to define it,” he charged.

Rather, the event was about protesting the prime minister’s efforts “to avoid going to jail,” and the damage he is threatening to do to Israeli democracy, said Lapid. Noting that many protesters were wearing Turkish-style fez headgear, he said they were conveying the message that they don’t want Israel “to turn into [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s Turkey.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz told Channel 12 in a pre-recorded interview that Netanyahu “aims to be the sultan” of Israel, with no limits on his power, and wants to turn the Knesset into “a city of refuge” for alleged criminals.

The rally began at 8:30 p.m. at the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum. Parties made considerable efforts to bring out protesters, with paid advertising and a social media campaign, and brought in supporters on buses from across the country.

The protest comes amid reported plans by Likud lawmakers and Netanyahu to pass legislation granting the premier immunity in multiple corruption cases — and additional legislation weakening the High Court of Justice so that it won’t have the power to overturn the laws protecting him.

Earlier Saturday, Ayman Odeh, the chairman of the Arab-majority faction Hadash-Ta’al, wrote on Twitter that he would be speaking at the rally.

“The struggle against Netanyahu’s attempts to destroy the democratic space is a common struggle for all the democratic forces. There cannot be an alternative to a corrupt and destructive government without the broad cooperation of all citizens — Jews and Arabs. Only with this cooperation will we be able to replace the government, only in this manner can we present an alternative to its destructive policy,” the Arab-Israeli lawmaker said.

The left-wing Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg said that “representatives from *all* of the opposition will stand on one stage this evening and demand the rejection of the corrupt deal that would shatter Israeli democracy in exchange for immunity for suspected bribery.”

While Zandberg asserted that all parties would be included, Ra’am-Balad chairman Mansour Abbas said he personally would not be joining. The hardline MK asserted that Arab-Israelis “are in no one’s pocket” and criticized Odeh for joining the other likely opposition parties on stage.

The announcements came hours after Hadash-Ta’al’s Ofer Kassif issued a fiery statement blasting Blue and White for “choosing to attack the Arab public instead of cooperating with it and its representatives in order to preserve democracy.”

Kassif asserted that the Arab-Israeli parties were not asked to take part in organizing the rally along with Blue and White, Labor and Meretz. He claimed that Blue and White MK Ofer Shelah had asked Odeh to speak, but by the time the latter responded, the former said it was too late for him to be included.

For their part, Blue and White organizers have claimed that Hadash-Ta’al and Ra’am-Balad representatives dragged their feet as long as they could rather than immediately respond to their invitations to join.

But the objections to the limited representation at the rally came from within Blue and White as well.

“An Arab-free demonstration is a capitulation to racism and incitement from the right,” Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich wrote on Twitter. “What have you achieved? Will right-wing protesters come in droves because you’ve pushed Arabs away? A moral and political mistake.”

Pending a hearing, Netanyahu is facing indictment for fraud and breach of trust in three criminal cases, and bribery in one of them.

“We will not allow Netanyahu to drag Israel to dangerous Turkey-style legislation, where the ruler is above the law,” the demonstration’s Facebook page declared.

The opposition is hoping to create public pressure on MKs from Likud and other prospective coalition parties who they believe are uneasy with supporting such legislation, or who have in the past stated that they would oppose such a move.

With Netanyahu currently struggling to form a 61-member majority coalition out of the 120 MKs, any single vote against an immunity push could be decisive.

The immunity push has been met with harsh criticism and great alarm by justice officials, top attorneys, retired judges, and former Likud officials.

On Friday, Channel 13 news quoted unnamed Supreme Court justices as saying the court could take “extreme steps” in order to block legislative proposals to curtail the court’s powers.

The passage of such an “override clause” would mark what has been called the greatest constitutional change in Israeli history, with vast potential impact on the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy, denying the courts the capacity to protect Israeli minorities and uphold core human rights. It would also, not incidentally, mean the court could not reverse Knesset-approved immunity for Netanyahu.

A spokesperson for the courts told Channel 13 that if the comments were made, they represented the view only of the individual or individuals who made them.

Netanyahu’s Likud party denied the prime minister was seeking “to destroy” the court.

“It is hard to believe that anyone takes seriously the idea the prime minister wants to destroy the Supreme Court,” the party was quoted saying in response.

“There is a huge difference between reasonable reforms to return the balance [between the legislative and judicial branches] and empty claims about an intention to destroy one of the three foundational authorities of democracy,” it said.

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