Israeli government in chaos as judicial reform plans draw mass protests

Tens of thousands of people poured out into the streets following Netanyahu’s announcement that he had dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. PHOTO: AFP

JERUSALEM – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition plunged into chaos on Monday, after mass overnight protests over the sacking of his defence chief piled pressure on the government to halt its bitterly contested plans to overhaul the judiciary.

Netanyahu had been expected to make a televised statement on Monday morning announcing the plans he says are needed to restore balance to the system of government, but which critics see as a threat to democracy. Amid reports that his nationalist-religious coalition risked breaking apart, the statement was postponed while Netanyahu met heads of the parties. 

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, many waving the blue and white Israeli flags that have become an emblem of the protests.

Earlier, a source in his Likud party and another source closely involved in the legislation said Netanyahu would suspend the overhaul, which has ignited some of Israel’s biggest-ever demonstrations, and drew an intervention by the head of state.

“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,” President Isaac Herzog said on Twitter.

The warning by Mr Herzog, who is supposed to stand above politics and whose function is largely ceremonial, underlined the alarm the divisions opened up by the proposals have caused.

It followed a dramatic night of protests in cities across Israel, with tens of thousands flooding the streets following Netanyahu’s announcement that he had dismissed Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing the plans.

A day earlier, Mr Gallant had made a televised appeal for the government to halt its flagship overhaul of the judicial system, warning that the deep split it 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 furious scenes in the Knesset early on Monday, opposition Members of Parliament attacked Mr Simcha Rothman, the committee chairman who has shepherded the Bill, with cries of “Shame! Shame!” and accusations comparing the Bill to militant Islamist groups that want the destruction of Israel. 

“This is a hostile takeover of the State of Israel. No need for Hamas, no need for Hizbollah,” one lawmaker was heard saying to Mr Rothman as the Constitution committee pressed on with a key part of the Bill which is due to be ratified this week.

“The law is balanced and good for Israel,” Mr Rothman said.

Three months after it took power as one of the most right-wing governments in the country’s history, Mr Gallant’s removal has plunged Netanyahu’s national-religious coalition into crisis, during a deepening security emergency in the occupied West Bank.

An opposition no-confidence motion was defeated, but in a sign of the tensions within the coalition, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who heads one of the hardline pro-settler parties in the coalition, called for the overhaul to go ahead. 

“We must not stop the judiciary reform and must not surrender to anarchy,” he tweeted.

The shekel, which has seen big swings over recent weeks as the political turbulence played out, fell 0.7 per cent in early trading before recovering some ground as expectations grew that the legislation would be halted. 

By late morning, shares in Tel Aviv were up around 2 per cent and the shekel had risen around 0.8 per cent.

As opposition spread, the head of the Histadrut labour union, Mr Arnon Bar-David, called for a general strike if the proposals were not halted. 

Take-offs from Ben Gurion airport were suspended, while Israel’s main seaports and hospitals and medical services were set to strike. Branches of McDonald’s were also closed as the protests extended across the economy. 

“Bring back the country’s sanity. If you don’t announce in a news conference today that you changed your mind, we will go on strike,” Mr Bar-David said.

The judicial overhaul, which would give the executive control over appointing judges to the Supreme Court and allow the government to override court rulings on the basis of a simple parliamentary majority, has drawn mass protests for weeks.

While the government says the overhaul is needed to rein in activist judges and set a proper balance between the elected government and the judiciary, opponents see it as an undermining of legal checks and balances and a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges that he denies, has so far vowed to continue with the project and a central part of the overhaul package, a Bill that would tighten political control over judicial appointments, is due to be ratified in Parliament this week.

As well as drawing opposition from the business establishment, the project has caused alarm among Israel’s allies.

The United States said it was deeply concerned by Sunday’s events and saw an urgent need for compromise, while repeating calls to safeguard democratic values. REUTERS

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