Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Saturday for a fifth week of protests against judicial overhaul plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government which critics say threaten democratic checks on ministers by the courts.
The plans, which the government says are needed to curb overreach by judges, have drawn fierce opposition from groups including lawyers, and raised concerns among business leaders, widening already deep political divisions in Israeli society.
“We (are) … here in order to demonstrate against the government of Israel under Netanyahu, which in our belief is against democracy and are going to do anything they can in order to take out democracy of Israel,” said Illan Bendori, 70, at a protest in Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu has dismissed the protests as a refusal by leftist opponents to accept the results of last November’s election, which produced one of the most right-wing governments in Israel‘s history.
“We are … very proud of our democracy and he wants to make Israel something else. We will not agree, we will do everything in our power to stop it,” Hadar Weis, 61, told Reuters at the protest in Tel Aviv.
The protesters say Israeli democracy would be undermined if the government succeeds in pushing through the plans, which would tighten political control over judicial appointments and limit the Supreme Court’s powers to overturn government decisions or Knesset laws.
Additional protests and partial strikes were called for Monday when a first reading of the proposals is set to take place in the parliament.
Israel‘s N12 news released a poll on Saturday revealing that 62% of Israelis want the proposed judicial plans to be either paused or halted altogether.
PARLIAMENT IN UPROAR
Israeli lawmakers traded insults on Monday over government plans to overhaul the judiciary while tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside parliament, as the president warned the country was on the brink of “constitutional collapse”.
The plans, which would give right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greater control of appointments to the bench and weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation or rule against the executive, have triggered angry protests across Israel for weeks.
On Monday, the Knesset Constitution Committee voted to send the first chapter of the plan to the plenum for a first reading, after a rowdy start to the meeting in which several lawmakers were thrown out forcibly, to shouts of “shame, shame”.
As lawmakers traded calls of “fascist” and “traitor”, sang protest folk songs, and even cried inside the Knesset, tens of thousands of protesters massed outside.
Netanyahu, currently on trial on corruption charges which he denies, says the changes are needed to restore balance in the system and curb activist judges who have overreached their powers to interfere in the political sphere.
“I call on the heads of the opposition: Stop it. Stop deliberately dragging the country into anarchy,” he said in a statement. “Most Israeli citizens do not want anarchy. They want a substantive discourse and in the end they want unity.”
But the plans have exposed deep splits within Israeli society, pitting the economic establishment and more liberal sections of the country against supporters of Netanyahu and his right-wing religious and nationalist coalition allies.
“I’m protesting for the country my father fought for, my brother fought for, my uncle died for,” said protester Hila Morzehavi. “They fought for Israel to be a democracy, not a fascist’s country.”
Critics say the plans risk destroying democratic checks and balances and isolating Israel internationally by weakening the courts, handing unbridled power to the executive, and endangering human rights and civil liberties.
Israel‘s public broadcaster Kan published a poll on Sunday which showed 28% of Israelis support the judicial overhaul as it is and 50% oppose it.
On Sunday evening, in a rare intervention, President Isaac Herzog made a televised plea for consensus, saying that the bitterness had left Israel on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse” and calling for all sides to come together.
The standoff comes at a time of heightened anxiety over security in Israel after two deadly attacks by Palestinians in recent weeks that killed 10 people and piled pressure on Netanyahu’s hardline government allies to react.
Netanyahu’s Likud party and its allies have denounced opponents of the proposals as embittered leftists who refuse to accept the results of last year’s election that brought one of the most right-wing governments in Israel‘s history to power.
But as well as the parliamentary opposition, warnings have come from Israel‘s banks and tech sector that the changes risked undermining the civil institutions that underpin Israel‘s economic prosperity.
U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to build consensus before pushing through far-reaching changes, saying in comments published by the New York Times on Sunday that an independent judiciary was one of the foundations of U.S. and Israeli democracy.
Rothman, one of the driving forces behind the proposals, said he welcomed Herzog’s calls but the opposition had to compromise.
“I urge, again, everyone who wants to negotiate with good faith to come to the president and do it,” he told Reuters.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters