Former IDF general blasts Netanyahu for ‘handing country over to lawbreaking’ far-right ministers; protest leaders said to warn they could shut Israel down if legislation continues

Protesters use flares during a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv on August 12, 2023. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

ens of thousands of Israelis protested Saturday against the judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv and cities across the country, kicking off the 32nd straight week of protests against the legislative plan, days after the government indicated that it still intends to pass the most critical part of the package despite massive opposition.

At the main Tel Aviv protest, over 100,000 were in attendance, according to Channel 13 news, which cited data from the CrowdSolutions firm. Other rallies were held at some 150 locations.

Protesters gathered at Kaplan Square for the main part of the rally and hundreds marched to the nearby home of Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, calling “We are not afraid,” waving flags and blowing horns outside before eventually being pushed away by police. Hounding the homes of government ministers has been a staple of anti-overhaul protests from the get-go, echoing tactics employed last year by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led opposition that eventually toppled the previous government and returned the Likud party leader to power.

Dozens of Tel Aviv protesters also marched down the main Yigal Alon road, seeking to block traffic, as police moved to clear them.

Earlier in the evening, police arrested three Palestinians, aged 16, 20 and 25, who unlawfully entered Israel. The three detained near Kaplan Street were from the West Bank village of Aqraba, police said, adding that they had apparently been in Israel working illegally and were stopped due to the police’s state of high alert as they secured the protest.

Last weekend, shortly before that week’s protests, 42-year-old Tel Aviv municipal security officer Chen Amir was shot and killed in the city by a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group who also crossed into Israel illegally.

Among those addressing the Tel Aviv rally was retired general Amiram Levin, who made a tearful plea to Likud ministers to “be brave” and oppose the coalition’s judicial overhaul legislation.

Levin, who at various times headed the IDF Northern Command, commanded the elite Sayeret Matkal unit and served as deputy director of the Mossad spy agency, accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of wanting to hand the country over to criminals.

“Bibi wants to give the keys to the country to a group of awful ministers, some of whom are convicted criminals and draft dodgers, to ministers who encourage massacring Palestinians subject to our rule, to a racist minister who loots the state budget and blocks funds for Arabs, just because they are Arabs. To a justice minister who wants one branch of government and no independent judiciary,” Levin said, apparently referring to National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and other Orthodox members of the cabinet.

He said some of the most hardline ministers “don’t know what democracy is because they and their aides grew up in a land that doesn’t have one,” he said, referring to those in the government who live in the West Bank, which is under Israeli military rule.

Former general Amiram Levin speaks during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“We won’t let Bibi and his group of ministers turn Israel into a dictatorship. We won’t allow it and won’t stay silent until we win,” he added, using the prime minister’s nickname.

Levin issued a direct plea to relatively moderate Likud ministers, including Avi Dichter, Nir Barkat and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, reminding each of them of their friends and colleagues who fell in battle during their military services: “Who would you want to go to war with? Their successors, or the draft dodging gang of Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and [Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak] Goldknopf… the gang of lawbreakers and warmongers… who discriminate against women and LGBTQ people?”

“I call to you from here, this is the battle of our lives, but this is also the opportunity of our lives — be brave. Here and all across Israel you will find hundreds of thousands of successors of your friends,” he said.

In her own speech at the rally, protest leader Shikma Bressler told demonstrators that despite the current Knesset recess, the threat of the coalition’s plans still looms.

“The Knesset may be on a break, but the coup continues at full strength. In the crosshairs is anyone who doesn’t fall in line with the rebellion declared by Netanyahu, led by the fascists and with the support of the corrupt,” Bressler said. “Every one of us understands that the time to fight is now.”

Prof. Shikma Bressler speaks during a protest against the government’s judicial overhaul plans, in Tel Aviv, on August 12, 2023. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Bressler went on to offer backing to police volunteers and military reservists protesting the overhaul, as well as three women in top positions — Michal Rosenbaum, director of the Companies Authority; Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara; and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut — who have all faced attacks from government members.

Also joining the Tel Aviv rally was Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who tweeted: “We come to Kaplan today to say that a government that doesn’t obey the court, that doesn’t obey the law, is an illegal government.”

Netanyahu has refused to commit to honoring a theoretical High Court of Justice decision striking down the reasonableness law — which was passed into law and bars judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of their “reasonableness” — raising concerns of a potential constitutional crisis.

In an unprecedented move, all 15 judges of the High Court will rule on the law in September, setting up a showdown between the judiciary and the government.

In addition to the rally in Tel Aviv, thousands of anti-overhaul protesters held demonstrations in Jerusalem, Beersheba, Haifa and dozens of other cities across the country.

Thousands of protesters intermittently blocked the Karkur Junction in northern Israel, lighting flares, as police worked to remove them from the road.

Demonstrators rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv, August 12, 2023. (Gitai Palti)

Protesters were reportedly preparing to completely shut down the country if the government does not respect such a High Court ruling on the “reasonableness” law or on the recusal law, which bars the court and the attorney general from ordering a premier to step down — a move apparently designed to allow Netanyahu to violate a conflict of interest deal he signed.

The anti-overhaul protesters “are prepared for a complete paralysis of the country, based on a general strike of the economy without a time limit,” a source within the protest movement told the Ynet news site.

“Many important sectors of the economy have already joined the plan,” the source said.

Netanyahu indicated a week ago that his government will move ahead with changing the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee, perhaps the most far-reaching and controversial measure in the judicial shakeup package. He intimated that he was still seeking consensus on this. After that, he said, he would shelve the rest of the judicial overhaul plan.

“We’ve already done quite a bit,” Netanyahu told the Bloomberg financial news outlet. “I stopped the judicial legislation for three months, seeking consensus from the other side – unfortunately not getting it. Then [I] brought in a relatively minor part of the reform, passed it,” he said, referencing the passage two weeks ago of the controversial reasonableness law.

The current judicial selection bill, which was suspended in March but is ready to be brought for its final readings at short notice, would remake the Judicial Selection Committee, under which coalition and Supreme Court representatives currently each have veto power over the other’s candidates for the top court, requiring a consensus on such appointments. Instead, the legislation would change the composition of the panel so as to bring appointments throughout the judicial hierarchy under near-absolute government control.

Demonstrators rally against the government’s judicial overhaul plans in Tel Aviv, August 12, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

The government’s plans have continued to roil the country, particularly the military.

The chief of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Tomer Bar, met Friday with dozens of reservist pilots who have declared they would no longer show up for volunteer duty to protest the overhaul, warning them that the state of the force’s readiness was “worsening.”

An unconfirmed report by Channel 12 news added that Bar told pilots: “Instead of preparing for war, I’m dealing only with this.”

As the coalition advanced the first major piece of related legislation last month, more than 10,000 reservists who frequently show up for duty on a voluntary basis said they would no longer do so. The reservists, some of whom have acted on their threats, have warned they will not be able to serve in an undemocratic Israel, which some charge the country will become if the government’s overhaul plans are realized.

As reported by The Times of Israel