March 3, 2024

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Netanyahu is under pressure from the protests to freeze the judicial reform bill

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JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced mounting pressure on Monday to halt his government’s push to reshape Israel’s court system, as national backlash against the plan threatened to plunge the country into chaos.

Israeli universities, trade unions and hospitals declared a general strike, and the international airport began freezing outbound flights. Local council leaders began gathering in front of the prime minister’s house to begin what they said was a hunger strike.

As calls for Netanyahu to step down came from government, businesses and the opposition, including from Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Netanyahu’s longtime lawyer, local media reported he would make a public statement Monday morning.

Netanyahu dismisses the defense minister who called for halting judicial reform

The announcement was delayed amid reports from sources in his own party that Netanyahu was ready to bow to pressure. Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, one of his most extreme right-wing allies, warned the prime minister via a tweet to “give in to chaos”.

The spread of chaos came in the morning after Netanyahu fired his defense minister, the first member of his cabinet to break with the coalition and call for a halt to the judicial legislation. The overnight expulsion shook an already turbulent country, escalating the backlash to an agonizing level.

Within minutes, demonstrators rushed to the streets across the country, vowing to step up demonstrations and general strikes until the legislative campaign was frozen. Police clashed with protesters in several locations, using water cannons, cavalry and other unusually aggressive tactics to push back the thousands of protesters who had blocked the Ayalon highway and who had congregated outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem.

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Israel’s consul general in New York resigned in a tweet, and Herzog, the honorary president, implored the prime minister and the coalition to halt their legislative push with the nation on the brink of disaster.

“Security, the economy, society and everything is threatened,” Herzog said in a statement. “The eyes of all the people of Israel have turned to you.”

Israeli media reported Monday morning that Netanyahu’s lawyer and confidant, Boaz Ben-Zur, told the prime minister that he would not continue to represent him in the corruption trial.

Hard-liners in Netanyahu’s coalition — which includes ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist settler parties — continued to push the legislation even as opposition swelled. On Monday, hours before Netanyahu was due to speak, a parliamentary committee passed a key component of the plan, a bill that would give the coalition greater control over the selection of judges.

“We don’t need to destroy the state,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said at the start of his party’s meeting in the Knesset Monday morning, as he called on Netanyahu to halt the legislation and enter negotiations under the president’s supervision. .

The coalition’s judicial reform package would give them greater power to handpick judges, including those presiding over Netanyahu’s corruption trial, in which he is indicted in three separate cases and faces possible jail time. Supporters say the changes — long sought by Israel’s growing right wing — are necessary because the courts have become too powerful at the expense of elected officials and hopelessly biased toward the country’s left-wing elite.

Opponents say the moves are an attempt to eliminate one of the only checks on the coalition’s power, a shift that would allow it to make sweeping changes in society and tilt the country toward authoritarianism.

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The plan, announced without warning shortly after Netanyahu’s new government took power at the end of December, has forced the country to grapple with lingering questions about whether to prioritize its democratic character or its Jewish character.