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Israel plunges into political turmoil over Netanyahu’s judicial reforms

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Israeli politics descended into turmoil, with Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government facing a spiralling backlash to its bitterly contested plans to overhaul the judiciary, and members of his coalition deeply divided on whether or not to back down.

Huge protests erupted across the country overnight, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets after Netanyahu, the prime minister, sacked his defence minister for urging a delay to the overhaul, warning that it posed a “tangible threat” to Israel’s security.

The resistance intensified on Monday, with Israel’s president imploring the government to suspend the overhaul, the country’s biggest union threatening to strike, and outbound flights from the country’s Ben Gurion airport suspended after workers there said they would join the protest.

As the public anger mounted, Netanyahu’s government, widely regarded as the most rightwing in Israeli history, was deeply divided on how to respond to the mounting backlash.

A parliamentary committee controlled by one of the main architects of the overhaul convened on Monday to advance part of the legislation, while ultranationalist national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir insisted that the government “must not surrender to anarchy”.

Protesters in Tel Aviv
Protesters in Tel Aviv © Ohad Zwigenberg/AP

But other figures in the coalition, including three ministers, publicly called for a halt. “The reform is necessary and we will carry it out,” economy minister Nir Barkat said in a statement. “But not at the price of civil war.”

The fight over the proposals, which would significantly weaken the powers of the judiciary, has plunged Israel into an escalating political crisis, unsettling investors, alarming its allies and sparking the biggest wave of protests in more than a decade.

Israel’s president Isaac Herzog on Monday appealed to Netanyahu to back down, warning that the “entire nation is rapt with deep worry”.

“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately,” he said.

His comments followed expressions of concern from the US, with President Joe Biden’s administration urging Israeli politicians to de-escalate the crisis.

“We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible,” said Adrienne Watson, National Security Council spokesperson. “We believe that is the best path forward for Israel and all of its citizens.”

Mass protests have taken place in Israel every week since the government unveiled its plans in January, and flared again on Sunday night after Netanyahu sacked defence minister Yoav Gallant, the most senior figure in his hardline government to come out against the overhaul.

Supporters say the changes — which will give the government and its allies greater control over the appointment of judges and limit the top court’s ability to strike down laws — are needed to rein in an activist judiciary that has pushed a partisan leftwing agenda.

But critics see the overhaul as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that would weaken minority protections, foster corruption and damage the economy.

Israeli media reported that protests took place in more than 150 locations on Sunday, with thousands blocking a main highway in Tel Aviv, and others clashing with police outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.

A group of universities said they would go on strike, and Israel’s consul-general in New York resigned in protest. Arnon Bar-David, leader of Histadrut, Israel’s biggest union, said on Monday that its 700,000 members would strike unless the government immediately halted the overhaul.

“We can no longer polarise the nation,” he said. “Together we say, enough.”

The outpouring of anger has also drawn in the military, with increasing numbers of reservists threatening not to report for training, sparking fears that the military’s capabilities were being undermined.

Netanyahu said last week that the government would press ahead with the overhaul and bring the amendment that would give it greater control over judicial appointments to parliament for a final vote this week.


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