Israel’s Netanyahu vows unity as thousands decry justice reforms

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Israeli divisions over the government’s judicial reform program widened Thursday as police fired water cannon at protesters blocking a highway in Tel Aviv and right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to restore unity.

Demonstrators fear the proposed reforms, which are already moving through parliament, would increase the power of politicians over the courts and pose a threat to Israeli democracy.

Israel’s allies abroad are worried about the overhaul.

Lawmakers earlier on Thursday approved legislation that limits the grounds for declaring a prime minister unfit, opposition chief Yair Lapid called for a “personal law” to protect Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, which he denies.

Thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv and other cities, according to Israeli media crowd estimates. Crowds of similar size have taken to the streets on other occasions during routine protests in the last few months since the proposals were introduced.

Netanyahu, in a televised address, said he was determined to advance the reforms but wanted to find a solution that would be acceptable to both supporters and critics of the proposal.

He said he wanted to “end the division in the community” after months of protests, including protests from high-level officials.

– ‘Civil War’ –

Last week, President Isaac Herzog, who plays a largely symbolic role, expressed concern about the growing divide in society and presented a proposed compromise. The government rejected it.

“Anyone who thinks that there is a real civil war, with human life, online that we could never achieve, has no idea what he is talking about,” warned Herzog.

On Thursday one demonstrator, Nadav Golander, warned of a “dictatorship” if the government continues its push.

“The people realize … they won’t stop,” Golander, 37, said.

“Of all the ‘paralysis days’ … this is the most important, there are many people,” he said, referring to the name used by the organizers.

Many demonstrators were carrying Israeli flags and some clashed with officers. Police reported at least 10 arrests in Tel Aviv for alleged public order offences.

Thousands also gathered in Jerusalem outside Netanyahu’s residence, Israeli media said.

Police did not give an estimate of the number of protesters.

Other rallies took place in the northern city of Haifa and in the southern Beersheba.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced the reforms in January, days after Netanyahu’s government took office, a coalition with ultra-Orthodox Jewish and far-right allies that analysts call the most right-wing in the history of the country.

Netanyahu and his allies say the proposed changes are needed to reduce the powers of the Supreme Court, which they argue has become politicized.

– Biden Call –

Members of the opposition refused to negotiate with the coalition government, demanding a complete freeze on all legislation related to judicial reform.

In a Sunday call with Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden supported “compromise” and stressed the importance of “real checks and balances”, the White House said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had urged Netanyahu to reconsider Herzog’s compromise proposal.

On Monday, the ruling coalition presented an amended version of a key element of its judicial reform, ahead of votes planned before parliament goes into recess next week.

Other pieces of legislation as part of the reform package would wait until the summer session to enable “real dialogue” with the opposition, the coalition parties said in a joint statement.

The new version of a bill to change the way judges are selected would add more legislators and members of the judiciary to the judicial appointment panel than the initial text.

Opponents of the package have accused Netanyahu of trying to use the reforms to overturn potential judgments against him. The prime minister has rejected the accusation.

Lawmakers voted 61 to 47 to approve an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, the country’s model constitution, specifying the necessary conditions for temporary removal.

The previous version of the law stated that a premier could be declared incapacitated, but did not specify the grounds or set out the necessary steps.

The amended legislation requires a request from the prime minister, or a government vote with the support of a three-quarters majority of ministers, and only for reasons of mental or physical health.

The law “de facto limits the possibility of declaring that a prime minister is unable to exercise his functions”, said Guy Lurie, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

“Reasons other than those specified in the amendment will no longer be acceptable,” he told AFP.

Some opposition figures and civil society groups have argued for Netanyahu to be declared unfit to serve, citing his ongoing trial. He denies the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

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