Israelis resume mass protests against judicial reform plans

Latest protests come days before the country's 75th independence day

Thousands of protesters on the streets of Tel Aviv. Reuters
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Protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to reform Israel's judicial system regained strength on Saturday, with tens of thousands on the streets.

Mr Netanyahu has been accused of trying to stage a power grab by weakening the country’s supreme court, strengthening the government’s ability to select court members and allowing parliament to overturn the court’s rulings by a simple majority vote.

The proposals led to the biggest protests in Israel’s history, accompanied by strikes across almost every sector of the economy, including the security forces, where some soldiers withheld their service.

The government accuses activist judges of increasingly usurping the role of parliament, and says the overhaul is needed to restore balance between the judiciary and elected politicians.

In central Tel Aviv, for the 16th consecutive week, crowds gathered in a show of defiance against plans they see as an existential threat to Israeli democracy. They waved the blue and white national flags that have become a hallmark of the protests over the past three months.

The protests came before Israel's independence day marking 75 years since the establishment of the country, and Israeli memorial day, which commemorates those killed in wars and in terrorist attacks, on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Mr Netanyahu paused the plans last month as the crisis escalated, and his Likud party plummeted in polls. Last month, a survey by Israel's Channel 13 projected that if an election was held in Israel now, Mr Netanyahu's party would lose 20 seats and subsequently, lose control of parliament.

“My father was killed on Yom Kippur War,” photographer Miri Pinchuk, 53, told Reuters. “He gave his life for this country, because he was raised up also with the belief that it's going to be a democracy.”

The government accuses activist judges of increasingly usurping the role of parliament, and says the overhaul is needed to restore balance between the judiciary and elected politicians.

Critics say it will remove vital checks and balances underpinning a democratic state and hand unchecked power to the government.

“There is this sentence from the Bible, from David's lamentation, saying 'How heroes fell'. And actually, the question now turns instead of 'How heroes fell?', to 'For what?',” lawyer David Gilat, 63, said.

A poll released by Israel's public broadcaster on Friday found the plans remain deeply unpopular, with 53 per cent saying they believe they will harm the country. Additionally, 60 per cent of Israelis said the government does not represent them and 48 per cent believe the situation in the country will continue to get worse.

Opponents of the reforms plan another demonstration on Tuesday in Tel Aviv ahead of Independence Day on Wednesday, and those who back the reform are expected to gather on Thursday.

Netanyahu cancels speech

On Sunday, Mr Netanyahu cancelled a speech marking the country’s 75th anniversary after fresh protests were expected at the event hosted by Jewish Federations of North America at the Expo Tel Aviv convention centre, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Mr Netanyahu’s government has been courting controversy in the US since it emerged that the Prime Minister could appoint May Golan to the role of Israel’s consul general in New York.

Ms Golan has come under fire for racist remarks and describes herself as the “mother of the politically incorrect.” In 2011, she told supporters at a rally that she was “proud to be a racist.”

She ran in the 2019 elections as part of a far-right coalition, Power to Israel, and confirmed her nomination for the New York role on Thursday.

“I want to assure everyone that if I will be appointed, I will represent 100 per cent the mainstream policies of PM Netanyahu and the Likud Party, to which I belong,” she said on Twitter, in an apparent attempt to ease concerns over her radical views.

US State Department spokesman Verdant Patel warned at a press briefing that her views would be “damaging” if “amplified in a leadership position.”

Updated: April 23, 2023, 10:25 AM