Israeli defence minister calls for pause in judicial reforms as thousands protest

A sea of Israeli flags in Tel Aviv, as people protest against the government's judicial reforms, on March 25, 2023. PHOTO: REUTERS

TEL AVIV - Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday against a controversial judicial overhaul, as Defence Minister Yoav Galant broke ranks to call for a pause to the government reforms.

The latest demonstration to hit Israel’s commercial hub came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the changes despite mounting international alarm.

But his defence minister said on Saturday that “we must stop the legislative process” for a month.

“Victory by one of the sides, on the city streets or in the Knesset’s (Parliament’s) halls, is a loss for the state of Israel,” he said in a speech.

Mr Galant called for the halt before lawmakers are due to vote this week on a central part of the government’s proposals, which would change the way judges are appointed.

The Tel Aviv protest swelled on Saturday to around 200,000 demonstrators, according to Israeli media estimates.

“We’re here today to show up and add our voice to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Israelis that support the values that this country was founded on,” said high-tech worker Daniel Nisman, mentioning democracy and tolerance.

“This is all we can hope for, that he (Mr Netanyahu) brings us back from the edge of the abyss,” the 36-year-old said.

Demonstrations erupted in January after the coalition announced its reform package, which the government says is necessary to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

‘Very upsetting’

But protester Daphne Oren-Magidor, 41, said the overhaul risked Israel “turning into a dictatorship”.

“The laws that are being passed right now are laws that are aimed to make the government essentially the sole ruler and destroy the separation of powers,” the historian said at a Jerusalem rally.

Thousands of demonstrators marched past the residence of President Isaac Herzog in Jerusalem, where demonstrator Harriet Scher had an Israeli flag wrapped around her shoulders.

“It’s been very upsetting for our country,” said the 80-year-old.

Israeli security forces use a water cannon to disperse protesters in Tel Aviv, on March 25, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

The reforms “will be very detrimental to people on the periphery – lesbian, gay and the Arab population – everything will just not be good for the country, if they (politicians) have complete override of the Supreme Court”, she added.

Plans to hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court have been questioned by Israel’s top allies, including the United States.

US President Joe Biden has expressed “our concerns over these proposals, these proposed judicial reforms”, White House spokesman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

Mr Netanyahu was also met by hundreds of protesters in London where he met his British counterpart, Mr Rishi Sunak, on Friday.

During the talks, the British Premier “stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms”, a spokesman said.

‘End the rift’

Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday that the legislation due in the parliamentary Chamber this week “does not take control of the court but balances and diversifies it”.

A parliamentary committee has amended the draft law with the aim of making it more palatable to opponents, but the opposition has ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.

In response, demonstrators have announced a “national paralysis week”, including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers’ homes, and, on Wednesday, outside Parliament.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant has broken rank to call for a pause to the government reforms. PHOTO: AFP

In his televised address on Thursday, Mr Netanyahu said he would do everything “to calm the situation and end the rift in the nation”.

Even so, the Premier said that his administration remained “determined to correct and responsibly advance the democratic reform that will restore the proper balance between the authorities” by ploughing on with the overhaul.

Mr Netanyahu came under fire a day later from Israel’s Attorney-General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said his public intervention was “illegal” due to his ongoing corruption trial.

The top legal official cited a previous court ruling that an indicted prime minister has no right to act on a matter that could place him in a conflict of interest. AFP

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