By Gauri Patel
Since January, mass protests have been taking place across Israel in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plans. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators crowded the streets of cities, calling for the reforms to be scrapped and for Netanyahu to resign, according to CNN.
The main clauses of the proposed judicial overhaul concern the power that the government has versus that of the Supreme Court, according to BBC. The reforms would severely limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review and eliminate laws deemed unconstitutional, as a simple majority in the Knesset, or parliament, can overrule court decisions. In addition, the government would have control over the appointment of judges by increasing government representation on the committee which appoints them, according to CNN.
Part of the bill, which strips the courts of their power to declare a prime minister unfit for office, has already been passed, according to CNN. This new law was believed to have been passed as a way to protect Netanyahu, who is facing an ongoing corruption trial.
On April 26, more than 600,000 people protested, triggered by Netanyahu firing Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, which caused massive shutdowns across the country, according to CNBC. The public saw this act as a blatant abuse of power and a challenge to the country’s democratic ideals. Bonfires were lit on Tel Aviv’s main highway while protesters carrying Israeli flags chanted “the country is on fire,” according to AP News.
The chaos of the nationwide protests threatens to paralyze the economy, according to AP News. Flights departing from the main international airport were grounded, malls temporarily closed their doors and university classes were halted as Israel’s main trade union, the Histadrut, called on its 800,000 members to stop work in health care, transit, banking and other fields.
Gallant was the first member of the cabinet to call for a halt to the planned judicial overhaul, saying that pressing ahead with the proposals could threaten Israel’s security.
In a speech on Saturday night, Gallant cited concerns about the damage to Israel’s military as fighter pilots and military reservists have threatened not to report for duty in opposition to the plans, according to AP News. He urged the Prime Minister to put his plans on hold, along with many other prominent officials, including Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Herzog called on Netanyahu for an immediate pause on the plans.
“Deep concern hovers over the entire nation. Security, economy, society — everyone is threatened,” Herzog stated. “For the sake of the unity of Israelis, for the sake of committed responsibility I call on you to halt the legislative procedure immediately.”
Asaf Zamir, Israel’s Consul General in New York, resigned in response to Netanyahu’s decision to fire Gallant. In his resignation letter posted to Twitter, Zamir wrote that the reform “undermines the very foundation of our democratic system and threatens the rule of law in our country.”
“The claim that this reform is the end of democracy is baseless,” said Netanyahu in response to the torrent of criticism received from the public and officials. He further claimed that the balance between the courts and the government has been violated for the past two decades, and the reforms would restore this balance, according to CNBC.
Netanyahu later doubled back on the reform plans in the name of avoiding a civil war. After weeks of defying protesters, he announced on Monday that a key part of the legislation will be postponed for at least a month to allow for time to reach an agreement, according to AP News. The move was cautiously received by the opposition and appeared to calm some of the tensions that have fueled the recent unrest. However, Netanyahu made it clear that the judiciary overhaul reforms will be passed “in one form or another,” according to CNN.
The Biden Administration, which has uneasy relations with Netanyahu’s far-right government, welcomed the announcement.
“We welcome this announcement as an opportunity to create additional time and space for compromise,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters. “Compromise is precisely what we have been calling for, and we continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible.”
Despite Netanyahu pausing the overhaul for negotiations on a compromise, as of April 1, protests continue and show no signs of subsiding, according to Reuters.