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Mass protest as Israel's Netanyahu advances legal reforms

February 20, 2023

Protesters have rallied once again against the changes proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu's government. President Isaac Herzog said Israel was facing a "fateful test."

Protesters wave Israeli flags as they demonstrate against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system
Demonstrators gathered outside the parliament, known as Knesset, for a second straight week to rally against the planned changes Image: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP/picture alliance

Tens of thousands of protesters rallied outside Israel's parliament on Monday as lawmakers loyal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed ahead with legislation to overhaul the country's judicial system.

Netanyahu's new right-wing government has said the reforms are needed to prevent judicial overreach. However, critics say it would undermine democratic checks and balances by weakening the judiciary and giving expansive powers to the executive branch.

The first reading of the proposed legislation was due on Monday.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid spoke in support of the protesters during a party meeting in the country's parliament, the Knesset.

"We are fighting for our children's future, for our country's future. We don't intend to give up," said Lapid, as protesters massed outside.

Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted in the members of the current government based on promises to change the justice system.

"The people exercised their right to vote in the elections and the people's representatives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel's Knesset. It's called democracy," Netanyahu told his Likud party.

Netanyahu has signaled that he was ready to talk with the opposition, but also said he would not delay the process of legal changes.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has repeatedly urged the government and opposition to hold compromise talks.

What does the government want to change?

The proposed overhaul would increase the influence of Netanyahu's government over the appointment of judges.

Under the current system, appointments are made by a committee that includes lawyers from the Israeli Bar Association, lawmakers, and judges. The new proposal would remove the representatives from the Israeli Bar Association and introduce two members of the public named by the office of the justice minister. Critics have said this would give the government a de facto majority on the committee.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a meeting of his Likud party at Israel's parliament, the Knesset
Netanyahu has expressed a willingness to talk with the opposition but vowed to press on with the legislationImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP/picture alliance

A second change would allow lawmakers to prevent judges from reviewing "Basic Laws," which serve as a sort of constitution for the country.

Also planned are proposals that would give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court rulings and control the appointment of government legal advisers.

Monday's initial vote was just the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval, a process expected to take several months.

US wants Israeli government to 'pump the brakes'

Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset in Jerusalem as a committee granted initial approval to the plan.

It followed weeks of mass demonstrations and opposition from vast swaths of Israeli society.

Opponents ranging from the country's tech industry to former security chiefs have urged Netanyahu to find a compromise.

On Sunday, President Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, said he is "worried about what is happening in Israeli society."

"We face a fateful test. I see the rifts and fissures between us, which are becoming deeper and more painful at this time," Herzog said.

US Ambassador Tom Nides told a podcast over the weekend that Israel should "pump the brakes'' on the legislation and seek a consensus on reform that would protect Israel's democratic institutions.

His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu's allies, telling Nides to stay out of Israel's internal affairs.

Netanyahu, who has frequently been at odds with the judiciary, has vowed to push ahead.

lo/dj (AP, Reuters, AFP)