Israelis protest ahead of crunch week for justice reforms

Published March 26, 2023
Tel Aviv: People attend a demonstration as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul on Saturday.—Reuters
Tel Aviv: People attend a demonstration as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul on Saturday.—Reuters

TEL AVIV: Thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv on Saturday against a controversial judicial overhaul by the hard-right government, ahead of a key week expected to see more legislative steps and mass protests.

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.

“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 (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.

Rallies have repeatedly drawn tens of thousands of protesters, according to Israeli media estimates, and a journalist saw thousands already gathering in Tel Aviv early on Saturday evening.

“More Israelis are waking up,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the Umbrella Movement of protests.

“We’re not going to live in a dictatorship. Even if they do pass the judicial coup, this protest is not going anywhere,” the 26-year-old said ahead of the rally.

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 spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

Netanyahu was also met by hundreds of protesters in London, where he met his British counterpart 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 spokesperson said.

Israeli lawmakers are due to vote on a central part of the government’s proposals next week, which foresees changing the way judges are appointed.

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

Even so, the premier said 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.

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.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2023

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