Israeli government criticizes judicial overhaul protests

Thomas Helm

The National  /  June 30, 2023

Coalition anger comes as thousands of Israelis demonstrate against reforms they say will damage democracy.

Israel’s government hit out at protesters demonstrating against the administration’s proposed legal overhaul, after a crowd blocked traffic to the country’s main airport earlier in the week and targeted the homes of ministers.

The country’s attorney general in particular drew strong ire, with ministers complaining that authorities were not doing enough to stop disruptions caused by protesters.

In leaked comments that were widely reported in Israeli media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to have asked in a closed-door meeting on Thursday: “In what country in the world do people block off an airport and not get prosecuted?”

Signs of the government’s exasperation come as the judicial reform protest movement again ramps up the pressure, which at the beginning of the year led to weekly demonstrations across the country that drew hundreds of thousands of Israelis into the streets.

The divisions were stark enough for President Isaac Herzog to say that Israel could descend into “civil war”.

Mr Netanyahu suspended attempts to enact the judicial reform bill in March while Mr Herzog oversaw negotiations between government and opposition politicians to find a compromise on the overhaul, which the administration says is needed to curb an overly powerful judiciary.

On Thursday, Mr Herzog warned graduating military reservist pilots that their threat to not turn up for duty would undermine the country’s security.

His call came after more than 100 air force reservists issued an open letter in which they said would not turn up for duty if the judicial reform moved ahead.

Their warning is reminiscent of action taken earlier in the year by some elite units in the country’s armed forces, including the air force, special forces and cyber community.

The judicial reform has also deepened rifts within the government, after Mr Netanyahu told The Wall Street Journal that he was cancelling a particularly controversial aspect of the package known as the “override clause”.

The provision would have effectively allowed parliament to pass laws that are immune from judicial review, a measure that critics say would render Israel’s legal system pointless.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir accused Mr Netanyahu of surrendering and breaking his promises.

The clause is particularly important to ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, who view it as a way of ensuring that men in the community continue to be exempt from military service, a policy many Israelis object to.

Thomas Helm is Jerusalem Correspondent at The National