Israel's Netanyahu vows unity as thousands decry justice reforms

Police detain a protester blocking the Ayalon Highway, during a rally in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEL AVIV - Israeli divisions over the government’s judicial reform programme widened on Thursday as police fired water cannon at protesters blocking a highway in Tel Aviv and right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to restore unity.

Demonstrators fear the proposed reforms, which are already moving through Parliament, would increase the power of politicians over the courts and are a threat to Israeli democracy.

Israel’s allies abroad have also raised concerns about the overhaul.

Lawmakers earlier on Thursday approved legislation restricting grounds for declaring a premier unfit for office, a move opposition chief Yair Lapid called “a personal law” to protect Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, which he denies.

Tens of thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv and other cities, according to crowd estimates by Israeli media.

Similar-sized crowds have taken to the streets on other occasions during routine protests over the past few months since the proposals were introduced.

Mr Netanyahu, in a televised address, said he was determined to advance the reforms but wanted to reach a solution acceptable to both supporters and critics of the proposal.

He said he wanted to to “end division among the people” after months of protest, including objections from high-level officials.

‘Civil war’

Last week, President Isaac Herzog, who holds a largely symbolic role, expressed concern over the deepening rift in society and presented a proposed compromise.

The government rejected it.

“Anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what he is talking about,” Mr Herzog warned.

On Thursday, one demonstrator, Mr Nadav Golander, warned of a “dictatorship” if the government presses forward.

“The people understand… that they will not stop,” said Mr Golander, 37.

“Of all the ‘days of paralysis’… this is the most important, there are loads of people,” he added, referring to the name used by organisers.

Many demonstrators carried Israeli flags and some clashed with officers. Police reported at least 10 arrests in Tel Aviv over alleged public order offences.

Many demonstrators carried Israeli flags in Tel Aviv, and some clashed with officers. PHOTO: REUTERS

Thousands also rallied in Jerusalem outside Mr Netanyahu’s residence, Israeli media said.

Police did not give an estimate of the number of protesters.

Other rallies took place in the northern city of Haifa and southern Beersheba.

The reforms were announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in January, days after Mr Netanyahu’s government took office, a coalition with ultra-Orthodox Jewish and extreme-right allies which analysts have called the most right-wing in the country’s history.

Mr Netanyahu and his allies say the proposed changes are necessary to diminish the powers of the Supreme Court, which they argue has become politicised.

Biden call

Members of the opposition have refused to negotiate with the coalition, demanding a complete freeze to all legislation related to the judicial reform.

In a call Sunday with Mr Netanyahu, United States President Joe Biden voiced support for a “compromise” and stressed the importance of “genuine checks and balances”, the White House said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had urged Mr Netanyahu to reconsider Mr Herzog’s compromise proposal.

Police cavalry officers intervene as protesters block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, on March 23, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

On Monday, the ruling coalition presented an amended version of a key element of its judicial overhaul, ahead of votes planned before Parliament goes into recess next week.

Other pieces of legislation part of the reform package would wait until the summer session to enable “real dialogue” with the opposition, coalition parties said in a joint statement.

The new version of a Bill to change the way judges are selected would put more lawmakers and members of the judiciary in the judicial appointments panel than the initial text.

Opponents of the package have accused Mr Netanyahu of trying to use the reforms to quash possible judgements against him. The Prime Minister has rejected the accusation.

Lawmakers voted 61 against 47 to approve an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, the country’s quasi-constitution, specifying the necessary conditions for a temporary removal.

The previous version of the law stated that a premier could be declared incapacitated, but did not specify on what grounds or lay out the necessary steps.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attending a voting session on the judicial reform Bill in Jerusalem on March 22, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The amended legislation requires a request by the prime minister, or a government vote backed by a three-quarter majority of ministers, and only for mental or physical health reasons.

The law “de facto limits the possibility of declaring a prime minister incapacitated to exercise their functions”, said Dr Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

“Reasons other than those specified in the amendment will no longer be admissable,” he told Agence France-Presse.

Some opposition figures and civil society groups have argued for Mr Netanyahu to be declared unfit to serve, citing his ongoing trial. He denies the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. AFP

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