Benjamin Netanyahu accuses protesters of ‘trampling democracy’

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  February 20, 2023

PM vows to press ahead with legislation to restrict judicial powers as upwards of 100,000 protesters take to streets.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has accused protesters of “trampling democracy”, vowing that his far-right coalition will move ahead with controversial legislation to restrict the power of the judiciary.

Upwards of 100,000 people gathered outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday in protest against an initial plenum vote on bills that would give politicians control over appointments to Israel’s supreme court, and limit its ability to overturn laws. Protesters blocked major roads across the country, and prevented some politicians from leaving their homes.

In a meeting with parliamentary members of his conservative Likud party, Netanyahu condemned the movement’s leadership for “threatening us with civil war and blood in the streets”.

“The people made their electoral choices and the representatives of the people will exercise their right to vote here in the Knesset. That’s called democracy,” the prime minister said. “Today there will be a vote, and tomorrow I hope the path will be opened to dialogue.”

A preliminary vote passed 63-47 after a vitriolic debate that dragged on past midnight. During the session, opposition lawmakers chanted, “shame” and wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag — and some were ejected from the hall.

Netanyahu’s planned judicial changes have been met with some of the biggest protests Israel has ever seen in the two months since he returned to office.

Demonstrations that began in Tel Aviv on Saturday night have proliferated across the country, culminating in strikes and marches outside the Knesset for two consecutive weeks held at the same time the legislation is on the parliamentary agenda.

The overhaul has invited parallels with democratic backsliding in countries such as Poland and Hungary and has drawn criticism from economists, Israel’s crucial hi-tech sector, military and security leaders, and the country’s allies in the US.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has used his largely ceremonial role to plead for dialogue between the government and opposition leaders to avoid a possible descent into violence and what he described in a speech as “constitutional collapse”.

Also among the proposals is a bill that would allow a simple parliamentary majority to override almost all supreme court rulings – a move that would give politicians unprecedented power in a country with no formal constitution or second legislative chamber that can perform other democratic checks and balances. The changes would probably help Netanyahu avoid prosecution in his ongoing corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

Proponents of the changes say they are needed to better balance different branches of government and counter a perceived leftwing bias in the court’s decisions.

Although the judicial changes were part of his bloc’s manifesto in last November’s election, in which the Likud and its far-right and religious partners won 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, public appetite for the overhaul in its current form is low. Recent polling by Israel’s Channel 12 suggested 60% of voters want the government to halt or delay the legislation.

While Monday’s vote applies to just one part of the proposals, and is just the first of three votes needed for parliamentary approval, the fact it went ahead despite repeated calls for postponement to allow talks with the opposition has been viewed by many as an act of bad faith.

At an opposition party meeting at the Knesset on Monday, Yesh Atid and its leader, Yair Lapid, said that “tonight Israel will take the first step towards becoming a non-democratic state”.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, who face systemic discrimination, and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, have long questioned Israel’s democratic character.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian