Israel’s Netanyahu delays controversial judicial reforms in wake of mass protests 

Chris Stevenson & Mustafa Javid Qadri

The Independent  /  March 27, 2023 

Decision follows weeks of demonstrations across Israel

Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a delay to controversial judicial reforms in the wake of mass protests across the country.

“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” Mr Netanyahu said in a nationally televised address. Striking a more conciliatory tone than in previous statements about the plan, he said he was determined to pass legislation to overhaul the judiciary but called for “an attempt to achieve broad consensus”.

Having faced weeks of protest over the reforms, Mr Netanyahu has come under extreme pressure to act in the past 48 hours. Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) on Monday, while workers launched a nationwide strike aimed at halting the reforms.

Departing flights from the country’s main international airport were grounded in Tel Aviv, and universities shut their doors after Israel’s largest trade union, the Histadrut, called for its 800,000 members to stop work. Diplomats also walked off the job at embassies. In the wake of the announcement by Mr Netanyahu, the strike action – which had threatened to grind the country’s economy to a halt – was called off.

Some protest leaders said demonstrations would continue despite the announcement. Dr Shikma Bressler, one of the main leaders of the movement, said: “The statements of the prime minister and his extremist partners are an admission of their intention to bring the dictatorship laws back to the table in the next parliamentary session, harming the economy and the security of the country.

“As long as the legislation continues and is not shelved, we will be on the streets.”

A pause in the legislation helps ease tensions and buy Mr Netanyahu some time to find a compromise. But there is no guarantee that it will end the crisis. Mr Netanyahu’s coalition is the most right-wing in Israeli history, and hardliners want to push the reforms through.

The security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – leader of the far-right Jewish Power party, which is part of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition – said in a statement that he had agreed to delay the government’s overhaul of the judiciary in exchange for a promise that a vote on it would take place after the forthcoming parliamentary recess if no agreement was reached in the interim.

Mr Ben-Gvir said the delay would allow time for a compromise agreement to be reached with the political opposition. But he said that if a deal is not reached, the package will be approved in the summer session, which begins on 30 April.

The party also said that Mr Netanyahu had agreed to the formation of a civil “national guard” to be controlled by Mr Ben Gvir, in a move that has worried opposition parties.

If no compromise is reached, with the parties saying they will go into the process with an open mind, Mr Netanyahu still runs the risk of angering his hardline coalition partners such as Mr Ben-Gvir – potentially threatening the stability of his government and risking the possibility of new elections.

The reforms would allow for a simple majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset to override almost any Supreme Court ruling, and for politicians to have more say on the justices appointed to the bench.

Critics say the changes would afford the government too much power and erode the rule of law. It has also not been lost on those opposed to the bill that Mr Netanyahu is facing trial on corruption charges (which he denies).

The government has said that judicial reforms are required to prevent overreach by the courts.

Any new election brought about by coalition infighting relating to the reforms would be likely to focus once more on Mr Netanyahu’s suitability to govern while he faces trial.

Protests have been taking place for weeks since the proposals were announced on 4 January, but events at the weekend created a new flashpoint.

On Sunday night, tens of thousands of people burst onto the streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister’s decision to fire his Defence minister for calling for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting “The country is on fire,” people lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, causing it to close, along with many others across Israel, for several hours.

Demonstrators gathered again on Monday outside the Knesset, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags dotted with rainbow Pride banners. Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other Israeli cities drew thousands more. Opposition to the judicial reforms has sparked some of the largest street protests in Israel’s history.

“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who had joined a stream of people heading to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has repeatedly spoken out against the reforms. “For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately,” he wrote on Twitter on Monday. Mr Herzog’s position is largely ceremonial, and he is expected to stand above politics. His intervention highlights the unease and division these proposed reforms have caused.

Mr Netanyahu’s announcement that he had decided to dismiss the Defence minister, Yoav Gallant, for opposing the plans brought this anger quickly to the surface. A day earlier, Mr Gallant had made a televised appeal for the government to halt the reforms, warning that the deep split that had opened up in Israeli society was affecting the military and threatening national security.

With the army reinforcing units in the occupied West Bank after a year of unrelenting violence that has killed more than 250 Palestinian gunmen and civilians and more than 40 Israelis, the removal of the Defence minister fed accusations that the government was sacrificing the national interest for its own.

During chaotic scenes in the Knesset early on Monday, opposition members of parliament attacked Simcha Rothman, the committee chair who has shepherded the bill, with cries of “Shame! Shame!”

“This is a hostile takeover of the state of Israel. No need for Hamas, no need for Hezbollah,” one legislator was heard saying to Mr Rothman as the constitution committee approved a key bill to go forward for ratification. “The law is balanced and good for Israel,” Mr Rothman said.

A no-confidence motion brought forward by opposition parties was also defeated in parliament early on Monday, in a sign that the fight over these reforms is not yet settled – for either side.

Thousands of travelers going through Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv faced severe travel disruption after airport staff joined the walkout earlier on Monday.

All departing flights from Israel’s international airport were ordered not to take off, while incoming flights were forced to land at alternative airports. Flightradar24 reported 134 delays and 29 cancelled flights.

“I ordered the immediate halt of take-offs at the airport,” the chair of the Israel Airport Authority workers’ committee, Pinchas Idan, had said.

A flight departing from Abu Dhabi for Tel-Aviv had to make an immediate U-turn on Monday morning. The Etihad flight was told to make its way back while flying over Saudi Arabia.

Chris Stevenson – Premium Editor for The Independent

Mustafa Javid Qadri – Editorial Intern

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report


Netanyahu announces delay to judicial overhaul plan

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  March 27, 2023

Prime minister defers controversial proposals to next parliamentary session after mass protests.

Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced a delay to his far-right government’s proposals to overhaul the judiciary after 12 weeks of escalating political crisis.

Netanyahu said on Monday he would delay his flagship judicial changes to the next parliamentary session, saying he wanted to give time to seek a compromise over the contentious package with his political opponents.

Speaking in a televised address on Monday evening, ten hours after he was originally scheduled to give a statement, Netanyahu – looking tired and striking an unusually flat tone – said he was “not willing to tear the nation in half … When there’s a possibility of avoiding fraternal war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, will take a time out for that dialogue.”

“We have the ability to pass the legislation with a strong majority,” he added, before praising the government’s supporters. “No one will silence you,” he said.

The decision to delay only postpones the issue for several weeks, and it is not clear if the protests will end.

In exchange for agreeing to the delay, the far-right Jewish Power party said the prime minister had offered the formation of a civil “national guard”, causing concern about an armed group under the control of the far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir.

With corruption charges hanging over his head, Netanyahu has been forced to rely on unruly, extremist coalition partners. Although famous for his working his way out of tight spots in the past, “King Bibi” appears to be losing his touch, struggling to maintain control inside and outside the Knesset.

Opposition to the bitterly contested judicial changes peaked on Monday as hospitals, universities and the country’s largest trade union announced a general strike in protest against the plans to limit the powers of the supreme court. Tel Aviv’s airport, Israel’s main international gateway, cancelled flights, and local municipalities, nurseries, civil servants and tech workers also joined the action. After Netanyahu’s evening address, the union called off the strike.

The strikes came after a dramatic night of protests sparked by Netanyahu’s decision to sack his Defence minister for opposing the judicial plans, and after significant pushback from the military, Israel’s vital hi-tech sector, and allies in the US.

While members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, as well as his ultra-Orthodox partners, appeared ready to support his decision to cave after months of public pressure, the far right proved hard to dissuade from threats to bring down the government if their demands were not met. Even as protests raged across the country overnight, a parliamentary committee continued to approve parts of the legislation, meaning the bills can go to the Knesset plenum for new readings.

The Likud member Yariv Levin, the justice minister, and the far-right MK Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s law and justice committee – the two men spearheading the judicial proposals – had repeatedly vowed to press ahead with passing the most important laws before the Knesset breaks up for the Passover holiday on 2 April. In a tweet on Monday, Rothman urged supporters of the overhaul to take to the streets and “not to give up on the people’s choice”.

The extremist security minister, Ben-Gvir, and the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, also warned on social media throughout the day that the prime minister must not “surrender to anarchy”. By early evening, however, Netanyahu appeared to have reached a settlement with his coalition partners, and Jewish Power released a statement shortly before Netanyahu’s address saying the legislation would be pushed to the next session of parliament.

In exchange, Jewish Power said the prime minister had agreed to the formation of a civil “national guard” under Ben-Gvir’s control, although observers widely interpreted the move as an empty gesture on Netanyahu’s part.

Another day of protests opposing the plans picked up across Israel by lunchtime, including outside the Knesset, where Israeli media estimated 100,000 people gathered before Netanyahu’s remarks. Supporters of the overhaul mobilized by Monday evening after Likud called for a counter-demonstration.

Police numbers were reinforced to handle possible trouble after fears of violence were fueled by social media posts calling for attacks on leftwing Israelis. In a tweet, Netanyahu appealed to supporters on both sides to avoid violence.

Monday’s events follow Netanyahu’s decision to fire his Defence minister, Yoav Galant, after he became the first senior governing coalition official to made a public call to scrap the proposals. The sacking appears to have crossed a red line, even as Israel was already grappling with unprecedented internal upheaval: in response to Galant’s dismissal, tens of thousands of people blocked motorways and attempted to break through barriers outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence in the early hours of Monday.

Police used mounted officers, stun grenades and water cannon to disperse demonstrators overnight, while Israel’s consul-general in New York and Netanyahu’s defence lawyer announced their intention to resign in opposition to the prime minister’s policies.

Proponents of the changes, introduced almost immediately after the new government entered office in December, say they are needed to better balance the branches of government and combat a perceived leftwing bias in the court’s rulings.

Critics say they will erase democratic norms, handing politicians too much power by allowing a simple majority in the Knesset to overrule almost all of the court’s decisions, and giving politicians a decisive say on appointments to the bench. It has also been pointed out the move could help Netanyahu evade prosecution in his corruption trial, in which he denies all charges.

If the plans for the judiciary go ahead in their current form after the Knesset break, Israel is still likely to face a constitutional crisis in which the supreme court could strike down the legislation, and the coalition could choose not to comply.

Only one in four voters support the judicial overhaul, according to recent polling by Israel’s Channel 12. Several previous attempts at delay, negotiation and compromise brokered by the figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, have been declared unworkable by the government.

The prime minister, taken aback by the scale of the protests, has reportedly been seeking to negotiate with the opposition for several weeks, but has been fearful of antagonizing his far-right coalition partners and losing his parliamentary majority.

After five elections since 2019 in which voters were split over whether the scandal-plagued Netanyahu was fit to lead the country, a bloc of extremist and religious parties headed by the Likud won elections last November, going on to form the most rightwing administration in Israeli history.

If the judicial overhaul is abandoned and the government collapses, Israel could once again be headed for elections.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian