Israeli far-right government is set to move forward Monday with judicial reform legislation in parliament which has been the major cause of widespread protests in the country, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also back after his medical complications.
Netanyahu was also back in the house— after pacemaker surgery — with authorities outside the Knesset using water canons against the protestors.
President Isaac Herzog also warned that “we are in a national emergency”, as he has been mediating a compromise for half a year of weekly mass protests.
According to the critics, the proposed judicial overhaul will erode the country’s liberal democracy by removing checks and balances on the executive, while the government argues it “needs to curb judicial overreach”.
The 73-year-old PM arrived at the parliament where MPs then started the session for a final vote on a bill that would limit judges’ ability to strike down government decisions they deem not to be “reasonable”.
His coalition government — which is a far-right — includes ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. They argue that the reforms are required to ensure a better balance of power.
As the crisis looked set to peak, Israel’s traditional bedrock ally Washington reiterated concern about the political turmoil, with Biden urging Israeli leaders to postpone the vote.
“From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the US, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” he said in a statement shared with AFP.
“It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.”
Determined to continue
President Herzog landed in Israel after his Washington trip, and went to Netanyahu’s hospital room Sunday, in a last-minute effort to reach a compromise.
Amid what he termed Israel’s “national emergency,” Herzog warned that “there are foundations for understandings, but gaps that demand from the sides to show responsibility still remain”.
Netanyahu had said Sunday afternoon that “we’re continuing our efforts to complete the legislation, and the efforts to do it in agreement” with the opposition.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the driving force behind the reforms, said the bill had already undergone changes to accommodate critics, but added that the ruling coalition was still open to “understandings”.
“Understandings means the opposition’s willingness to make concessions too,” he told supporters at a Tel Aviv rally Sunday.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu — who has been accused of corruption in court — of a conflict of interest, and some protesters have labelled him the “crime minister”.
“Today, the first law that will begin toppling Israel’s democracy will probably pass,” said Shahaf Kushinsky, 34, a high-tech worker who protested near parliament.
“That will in essence give the government unlimited power. … This is the gateway to a dictatorship and that´s why we´re here. We´re fighting for our democracy.”
Greater say in judiciary if approved
If approved, the “reasonableness” clause would be the first major component of the reform package to become law.
Other proposed changes include allowing the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.
The protests have drawn support from across the political spectrum and among secular and religious groups, blue-collar and tech sector workers, peace activists, and military reservists.
The political battle over the judicial overhaul comes against a backdrop of rising Palestinian-Israeli violence.
One protester opposed to the judicial package, Tali Gal, said she was rallying against what she said were “forces of darkness”.
“We are defending our democracy with our bodies,” said Gal, 52, a law professor.
“The plan is to do whatever possible, to send a message to the world that we need an intervention now, any intervention, to stop this.”