Israel’s Netanyahu accused of ‘theocratic dictatorship’ over judicial reforms

Alastair Jamieson

The Independent  /  March 14, 2023

Ex-leader Ehud Barak has called for ‘civil disobedience’ over the plans.

Hundreds of prominent Israelis have called on Britain and Germany to cancel upcoming visits by Benjamin Netanyahu, saying his controversial judicial reforms are turning Israel into a “theocratic dictatorship”.

The prime minister’s new ruling coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the Supreme Court and give ministers control over the appointment of judges.

Israel’s parliament on Tuesday advanced a bill that would let politicians pass laws that the Supreme Court cannot overturn.

The changes have divided the country and drawn tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets in protest in recent weeks.

Former Israeli PM Ehud Barak this week called for civil disobedience in order to prevent the judicial reforms being pushed through.

“Once a government, using the tools of democracy in order to destroy it from within, ends up acting in a blatantly illegitimate matter, it is not just the right of citizens, it is, in my judgement, the obligation of citizens to turn unfortunately toward civil disobedience,” he said.

In a letter addressed to the German and British ambassadors in Israel, some 1,000 Israeli figures said their country is in the midst of the most extreme crisis in its history.

“In the face of Mr Netanyahu’s dangerous and destructive leadership, and in light of a vast democratic civilian resistance against the destruction of state institutions by undemocratic law-making, we are asking that Germany and Great Britain swiftly announce to the defendant Netanyahu that his planned state visits to your countries are cancelled,” reads the letter. “If these visits go ahead as planned, a dark shadow will hang over them.”

The letter was signed by authors David Grossman and Dorit Rabinyan, Oscar-nominated director Uri Barbash and scores of academics, business figures and professionals.

Mr Netanyahu is scheduled to meet German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday in Berlin, where Israeli expats say they are organizing a large protest.

He returned to power in December, following the country’s fifth election in under four years, at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s 75-year history.

His ruling coalition says the reforms are a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges.

Critics say the reforms concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority and are an attempt by Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

In an overnight session that stretched into early morning, the Knesset gave initial approval to several pieces of legislation, including a bill protecting the prime minister from being declared unfit for office, or incapacitated, and another to allow settlements in the northern West Bank. A third piece of legislation would let parliament pass laws that cannot be subjected to judicial review. Each of the bills requires additional votes before being enshrined into law.

Separately, Britain’s foreign secretary said he raised the need for “careful use of language” with Israeli ministers after one suggested a Palestinian village should be erased.

James Cleverly told MPs he expressed concerns about settlement building in the occupied West Bank in recent meetings with his Israeli counterpart.

Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank rampaged through the Palestinian village of Huwara at the end of February, where two Israeli brothers had earlier been killed in a Palestinian shooting attack.

Finance minister Bezalel Smotrich suggested the village should be wiped out, remarks which Mr Netanyahu later described as inappropriate.

Alastair Jamieson – editor, daily edition

Associated Press contributed to this report