Netanyahu defends overhaul of Israel's judicial system after mass anti-government rally

The Prime Minister says Israel will remain a 'robust democracy' as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy prepares visit to the country

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the weekly cabinet meeting in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, 30 April 2023.   EPA / ABIR SULTAN  /  POOL
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doubled down on controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system on Sunday, pledging the country would remain a “robust democracy” as a top US leader prepared to visit.

“Israel has been thrown off balance,” Mr Netanyahu argued. “The big challenge is to bring it back to a balance that is accepted in most democracies … without going to the side that would indeed remove checks and balances on the power of the majority.”

Mr Netanyahu spoke on Sunday to CNN's Fareed Zakaria a day after protesters stormed the streets of Israel in opposition to the judicial reform plan.

Thousands rallied in Tel Aviv ahead of Israeli legislators' return for a new parliament session, against the reform plan pushed by Mr Netanyahu's historically right-wing, ultranationalist government. It seeks to weaken the Supreme Court and increase the government's role in selecting its judges.

An Israeli army officer was removed from his post on Sunday for attending a political protest in uniform, the first such case during the political crisis.

Meanwhile, Israel's Haaretz reported that seven hundred elite military reservists signed a letter to Mr Netanyahu saying the reserve system will begin “to collapse” if the proposed reforms pass.

The American-educated prime minister made the appeal as the US House Leader Kevin McCarthy landed in Israel with a bipartisan delegation celebrating the 75th anniversary of the country's establishment.

Washington has historically maintained a strong pro-Israel track record, but the judicial reform has caused friction between the stalwart allies.

More than half of all foreign military aid that US President Joe Biden, a personal friend of Mr Netanyahu, requested for the fiscal year of 2022 was earmarked for Israel, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.

Under a 2016 agreement, Washington committed to providing about $4 billion to Israel each year, including $500 million for missile defence.

Last month, after Mr Netanyahu threatened the ousting of a defence minister opposed to the measure, the White House said it was “deeply concerned”.

“We are deeply concerned by today’s developments out of Israel, which further underscore the urgent need for compromise,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a March statement.

“Democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” she added.

Updated: April 30, 2023, 8:03 PM