Major Israeli protests against planned judicial overhaul threaten unrest
Tens of thousands of Israelis protested against government plans to reduce the power of the judiciary, hours after President Isaac Herzog warned the country is on the verge of “constitutional and social collapse.”
Demonstrators flocked to parliament from around the nation on Monday, stood outside elementary schools and stopped highway traffic by waving Israeli flags and chanting “democracy!” They are seeking to derail a proposal by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and allies to make it easier for the state to appoint judges and limit the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down legislation.
The protests took place as the Knesset law committee advanced two key bills related to the judicial overhaul, clearing the way for a plenum vote as early as Monday evening. Herzog — whose role is largely symbolic — has called for a delay and more talks, and delivered a rare prime-time speech to warn of the potential disruption if he is ignored.
“The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode,” the visibly emotional president said Sunday. “This is an emergency.”
The protests and Herzog’s intervention reflect widespread concern that the change planned by Netanyahu is so radical that it raises doubts about the future of Israel’s democracy, the country’s appeal to foreign investors and ties to its strongest allies. The prime minister won power as part of a far-right coalition in elections last year.
The social unrest coincides with spiraling violence between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The security cabinet announced plans late Sunday for the legalization of nine settlement outposts and an increased police presence in the occupied areas as an answer to Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians there.
Jonathan Spyer, director of research at the Middle East Forum think tank, said the last time “things got stretched this tight” was when Israel prepared in 2005 to pull out of the Gaza Strip and evacuate Jewish settlements there.
Israel’s closest allies are also starting to express concern, with US President Joe Biden telling a New York Times columnist over the weekend that Israel’s democracy is based on institutional checks and balances, notably through an independent judiciary.
Herzog laid out a negotiating framework for compromise in his televised address. “The time has come to reach out,” he said. “The threats from outside are great enough.”
Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition, called Herzog’s negotiating framework reasonable, noting its stipulation that talks are conditional on immediate suspension of the legislative process.
“Until then, the struggle will continue, the protests will not stop,” Lapid said.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin said on his Facebook page he is interested in a dialogue but dismissed any connection between negotiation and the progress of the legislation.
Scores of economists, business leaders, retired security chiefs and legal scholars have all gone on record in opposition of the plan as it currently stands. Leaders of the hightech industry, who may be most vulnerable should investor confidence be undermined, marched through Jerusalem to the parliament.