Netanyahu expected to announce halt to plans to overhaul Israeli judiciary [in an effort to demobilize the opposition]

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  March 27, 2023

Israeli prime minister likely to put controversial legislation on hold amid mass protests overnight.

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

Hospitals, universities, and the country’s largest trade union announced a general strike on Monday morning, while Tel Aviv’s airport, Israel’s main international gateway, began cancelling flights. Local municipalities, nurseries, civil servants and tech workers have also joined the action.

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

Israeli media outlets, citing sources in Netanyahu’s Likud party, reported on Monday morning that in a televised address the prime minister was expected to announce a freeze to the bitterly contested legislation, which would limit the powers of the country’s supreme court.

Shortly before he was due to speak, the statement, originally announced for 10.30am (08.30am BST), was delayed, allegedly due to threats from the far-right of the coalition to bring down the government if he paused the judicial overhaul.

While members of the Likud, as well as ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, appeared to have finally caved to the months of public pressure, the extremist security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, warned in a tweet that the prime minister must not “surrender to anarchy”.

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 – have repeatedly vowed to press ahead with passing the most important reform laws before the Knesset breaks up for the Passover holiday on 2 April.

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. In a tweet, Rothman urged supporters of the overhaul to take to the streets and “not to give up on the people’s choice”.

“They will not steal our elections!” he said.

Protests opposing the plans began to pick up again across Israel by lunchtime. A mass demonstration is scheduled for outside the Knesset at 2pm (12pm BST).

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 major motorways and attempted to break through barriers outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence overnight.

Police used mounted officers, stun grenades and water cannon to disperse demonstrators, while Israel’s consul-general in New York, and Netanyahu’s defence lawyer, announce 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 over the judiciary 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, Israel is likely to face an unprecedented constitutional crisis in which the supreme court could strike down all or parts of the legislation designed to curb its powers, 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.

Writing on Twitter in the early hours of Monday morning, Herzog said: “For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on [Netanyahu] to stop the legislative process immediately.”

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

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 a clear majority in elections last November, and went on to form the most rightwing administration in Israeli history.

If the judicial overhaul is paused or scrapped and the government collapses, the country could once again be headed for elections.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian


Israel’s president calls for halt to judicial overhaul after mass protests

The Guardian  /  March 27, 2023

Thousands took to the streets on Sunday after Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his Defence minister for opposing the controversial changes.

Israel’s president has urged the government to halt its bitterly contested judicial overhaul, a day after prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his Defence minister for opposing the move, sparking mass street protests.

“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,” Isaac Herzog said on Twitter.

The warning from the head of state – who is supposed to stand above politics and whose function is largely ceremonial – underlined the alarm the judicial proposals have caused.

It followed a dramatic night of protests, as tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Sunday night after Netanyahu fired the country’s Defence minister. Yoav Gallant had called on the prime minister to scrap the proposals which have divided the country, led to mass protests and sparked growing discontent within the military.

Netanyahu’s move on Sunday underscored his determination to press on with the overhaul which has also angered business leaders and raised concerns among Israel’s allies.

Demonstrators blocked Tel Aviv’s main artery late into the evening, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags and lighting a large bonfire in the middle of the road.

Protests took place in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands of people gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence. Police scuffled with demonstrators and sprayed the crowd with a water cannon. Thousands then marched from the residence to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

“We saw very difficult scenes tonight,” Herzog wrote.

“I am addressing the Prime Minister, the members of the government … The eyes of all the people of Israel are on you. The eyes of the entire Jewish people are on you. The eyes of the whole world are on you.”

“Come to your senses now! This is not a political moment, this is a moment for leadership and responsibility,” he added.

A parliamentary vote this week will take place on a centrepiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. It also seeks to pass laws that would grant parliament the authority to override supreme court decisions and limit judicial review of laws.

In a brief statement on Sunday, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Gallant after the Defence minister had called for a pause in the legislation until after next month’s Independence Day holidays, citing the turmoil in the military over the plan.

Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan.

But as droves of protesters flooded the streets late into the night, other Likud ministers began indicating willingness to hit the brakes. Culture minister Miki Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would support him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.

A White House spokesperson said the US urged Israel’s leaders to find compromise as soon as possible.

“As the president recently discussed with prime minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” White House national security council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support.”

On Sunday, Israel’s consul-general in New York said he was resigning in protest at Netanyahu’s treatment of his Defence minister. “I can no longer continue representing this government,” Asaf Zamir said on Twitter. “I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”

Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, said Gallant’s dismissal was a “new low for the anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores warnings of all defence officials”.

“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace Gallant. Dichter had reportedly considered joining the Defence minister but instead announced on Sunday that he was backing the prime minister.

Netanyahu and his allies say their plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist supreme court with liberal sympathies.

But critics say the laws will remove the checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition.