Netanyahu Cornered To Freeze Judicial Overhaul Plans As Protests In Israel Escalate
After 12 weeks of mounting political crisis, Israel’s embattled Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is expected to call a halt to his far-right government’s proposals to revamp the court.
On Monday morning, hospitals, universities, and the country’s largest labor union declared a countrywide strike, while Tel Aviv’s airport, Israel’s principal international gateway, began canceling flights. Municipal governments, nurseries, governmental officers, and tech professionals have all joined the protest.
The strikes follow a night of protests spurred by Netanyahu’s decision to fire his defense minister for rejecting the judicial plans, and they build on strong opposition from Israel’s military, its critical hi-tech sector, as well as its US allies.
As calls for Netanyahu’s resignation grew from across the government, business sector, and opposition, including from Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu’s longstanding lawyer, local media claimed that he will make a public statement Monday morning. He was expected to put a halt on the contentious legislation, which would limit the country’s supreme court’s powers, in a televised address.
The announcement, initially scheduled for Monday morning, was postponed shortly before he was to speak, apparently due to threats from the coalition’s far-right to bring down the government if he paused the judicial overhaul.
As members of the Likud and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners appeared to have finally succumbed to months of public pressure, the extreme security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, urged the prime minister in a tweet that he must not “surrender to anarchy.”
The two men spearheading the judicial proposals, Likud member Yariv Levin, the justice minister, and far-right MK Simcha Rothman, who chairs the Knesset’s law and justice committee, have repeatedly vowed to press ahead with passing the most important reform laws before the Knesset adjourns for the Passover holiday on April 2.
Even as protests raged around the country overnight, a parliamentary committee continued to approve parts of the legislation, indicating that the proposals can now be read again in the Knesset plenum. Rothman urged supporters of the overhaul to march to the streets and “not give up on the people’s choice” in a tweet.
Following the mounting protests, the law committee canceled the vote on the preparation of the law that will change the composition of the Committee for the Selection of Judges in the Knesset for the second and third readings.
Judicial overhaul or constitutional crisis?
The coalition’s judicial overhaul bill would give it more power to choose judges, including those who would preside over Netanyahu’s corruption trial, in which he is indicted in three separate cases and faces jail time.
Proponents argue that the changes, which have long been sought by Israel’s increasing right wing, are necessary because the courts have grown too powerful at the expense of elected politicians and are hopelessly biased toward the country’s left-wing elite.
Opponents claim the initiatives are an attempt to remove one of the coalition’s last balances on power, allowing it to make major changes to society and tip the country toward dictatorship.
If the plans for the judiciary proceed in their current shape, Israel is likely to confront an extraordinary constitutional crisis in which the Supreme Court might overturn all or portions of the legislation intended to limit its powers, and the coalition could refuse to comply.
The plan, revealed without notice shortly after Netanyahu’s new administration gained power at the end of December, pushed the country to confront long-simmering debates about whether it should prioritize its democratic or Jewish identities.
According to a recent Channel 12 poll, only one in every four respondents supports the judicial overhaul. The administration has deemed impossible several past attempts at postponement, discussion, and compromise orchestrated by President Herzog.
“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,” Herzog tweeted.
Netanyahu’s lawyer and close confidante, Boaz Ben Zur, informed the prime minister on Monday morning that he would no longer represent him in his corruption trial.
The straw that broke Israel’s back
The demonstrations on Monday follow Netanyahu’s decision to replace his defense minister, Yoav Galant, after he became the first senior governing coalition official to publicly advocate for the proposals to be scrapped.
Tens of hundreds of people attempted to burst through barriers outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem house overnight in response to Galant’s firing.
Police dispersed demonstrators with mounted cops, stun grenades, and water cannons, while Israel’s consul-general in New York and Netanyahu’s defense lawyer announced their desire to resign in protest of the prime minister’s policies.
By midday, tens of thousands of protestors had swarmed central Jerusalem, forming a sea of Israeli flags and a cacophony of drums, horns, and chanting encircling the Knesset, the prime minister’s office, and the Supreme Court.
The protests have also intensified from stopping the judicial overhaul to calling for Netanyahu’s resignation. As of last count, protestors on the streets have amassed to more than 600,000 Israelis.
Responding to the protests, the Israeli National Police is reportedly doubling their forces at all “stations in the country.”
Israel’s former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett lamented on the ongoing crisis, saying the country is “in the greatest danger since the Yom Kippur War,” referencing the 1973 Arab–Israeli War that left nearly 2,800 Israelis dead.
US officials have sounded off that they are “deeply concerned” about the ongoing civil unrest in Israel.
“As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship. 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,” NSC Spokesperson Adrienne Watson wrote in a statement.
The prime minister has apparently been attempting to engage with the opposition for several weeks, but is afraid of antagonizing his far-right coalition colleagues.
Following five elections since 2019 in which voters were divided over whether the scandal-plagued Netanyahu was fit to lead the country, a coalition of extremist and religious parties led by the Likud won a clear majority in elections last November, forming the most rightwing administration in Israeli history.
If the judicial makeover is halted or abandoned, and the government falls apart, the country may be forced to hold new elections.
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