Israel's gov't clashes on judicial reform protests 'enforcement policy'

"The right to protest within the law is holy for every person and every population, and we forcefully condemn violence against protestors from any side."

 Demonstrators protests against the Israeli government's judicial reform in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv in the 25th week of protests June 24, 2023. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Demonstrators protests against the Israeli government's judicial reform in Dizengoff Square, Tel Aviv in the 25th week of protests June 24, 2023.

The cabinet received on Sunday an update from Attorney-General Gali Baharav Miara on enforcement policy over threats against public servants, calls for civil disobedience, blocking roads and what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed were illegal strikes.

“The right to protest within legal confines is untouchable for every person and every population, and we forcefully condemn violence against protesters from any side. This right is safeguarded both for those who oppose the reform and those who support it,” Netanyahu said.

“The government would not conceive of limiting this right, but the government does wish to receive a report about what the enforcement policy is regarding violation of the law, that violates the basic rights of millions of citizens, and is happening on a near daily basis during the protests.

“In a democratic country there cannot be a situation where there is one enforcement policy toward one population group, and a second enforcement policy toward a different population group,” Netanyahu added, referring to claims by many ministers and coalition MKs that the police were not enforcing the law against anti-judicial reform protesters with the same strictness that they have been for other groups.

Politicians scapegoated during Knesset meeting

Ministers attacked Baharav-Miara during the meeting. Justice Minister Yariv Levin read out protocols of government meetings during protests against the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, which he claimed proved that the government then had acted more forcefully against protesters. Transportation Minister Miri Regev and a number of other ministers called for Baharav-Miara’s removal, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir argued that there were not enough arrests and indictments against protesters.

 Protests against the judicial reform at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)
Protests against the judicial reform at Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, May 27, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

According to information provided at the meeting, some 572 people have been arrested since the protests began in January on suspicion of attacking a police officer, out of which six indictments were handed down.

“On Wednesday, an [Israel Police] superintendent stood in uniform and spoke about politics, and I thought there was nothing worse,” Ben-Gvir said during the closed-door meeting, according to his spokesman. The national security minister was referring to Israel Police Tel Aviv Chief Ami Eshed’s resignation speech last week, in which he accused the government of attempting to intervene in his operational judgment in handling the weekly protests and demanding that he apply more force against the protesters.

“Today I discovered that there is something more problematic, and that is to do politics without admitting that you are doing politics. I suppose that you believe yourselves, but reality is different,” Ben-Gvir said to the attorney-general and other officials present.

The cabinet concluded the meeting by demanding that the attorney-general lay out a “general plan,” including “methods of treatment in cases where the National Security Council warns against actions that can potentially harm national security.”

Responses to the cabinet meeting 

Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid wrote in response to the cabinet meeting, “The cabinet today violently hazed the attorney-general. The ugly assault by the ministers on Baharav-Miara, a fair gatekeeper who is only doing her job, is an example of what they are trying to do to Israeli society – thuggery instead of the rule of law, governmental violence against citizens and officials, [and an] aggressive annihilation of our democracy.”

Labor Party chairwoman MK Merav Michaeli wrote, “The Israeli government invites the attorney-general to a hearing where she will have to answer the question ‘how many protesters have been arrested and taken for interrogation.’ This is not happening in Putin’s Russia, it is happening here in Netanyahu’s Israel.

“But they don’t understand that they really are messing with the wrong generation,” Michaeli said. “There are protesters here who are not afraid. And we are not afraid. Israel is not a dictatorship and it cannot be turned into one. It will take time, but Israeli democracy will prevail,” she wrote.

The 'Kaplan Force' and Finance Minister Smotrich's responses 

The coalition of protest groups known as the Kaplan Force put out a statement in response: “The attack that the attorney-general is undergoing is the direct continuation of the planned attack against the rule of law in the State of Israel by the government of destruction.

“The demand for police violence, to use executive tools to suppress the protests, while delegitimizing the gatekeepers, are a fundamental part of the coup d’etat. This is what happened in Hungary, Turkey and Poland,” Kaplan Force said, adding that it will “set out to defend Israeli democracy” on Tuesday, if the government followed through on its plan to pass late Monday night the first reading of the controversial Reasonableness Standard Bill.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich did not participate in the part of the cabinet meeting dedicated to the protests, writing on Twitter that his time was “too important to waste on pointless discussions. The attorney-general is in complete conflict of interest. The protesters are demonstrating to support her and to maintain the corruptive power that she and her colleagues in the judicial system have accrued over the years. Instead of wasting time on deaf conversation, the coalition must simply legislate. That is the best answer to the attorney-general’s conduct,” Smotrich wrote.

The bill in question is an amendment to the Basic Law: The Judiciary, which would block Israel’s courts from applying what is known as the “reasonableness standard” to decisions made by elected officials. The reasonableness standard is a common law doctrine that allows for judicial review against government administrative decisions that are deemed beyond the scope of what a responsible and reasonable authority would undertake.

Proponents of the law argue that it is a highly subjective tool for judicial activism that allows the court to subvert government policy with its own views. Critics, including the attorney-general, argue that the tool is essential to counter corruption and to ensure the protection of individuals from arbitrary and capricious government decisions.

President Isaac Herzog addressed the dispute over the judicial reforms during a speech at the annual state memorial for Theodor Herzl.

“I can tell you: agreements are possible – in general, and certainly on the specific issue of the reasonableness clause. An agreement is attainable. And yet, still no one is willing to sit down and talk, now, without preconditions. This is a blunder of historic proportions,” the president said.

The cabinet discussion and Herzog’s comments came after tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets on Saturday night for the 27th straight week, and after demonstrators gathered outside of the homes of over a dozen coalition members on Thursday evening.

Michael Starr contributed to this report.