Tens of thousands of Israelis are protesting against the government’s plan to pass a judicial reform bill that they say threatens democracy.
Demonstrators from across Israel descended on Jerusalem on Monday to rally near the Knesset for a second straight week ahead of the first reading of the legislation to change the way judges are picked.
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Many critics say it will upend the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister who is on trial on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.
Protesters accuse the government of a power grab, and weekly protests in Tel Aviv since early January have drawn tens of thousands of people.
The government – the most right-wing in Israel’s history – is forging ahead with the plan despite the unprecedented demonstrations, warnings from military and business leaders, and calls for restraint by the United States.
‘Complete judicial overhaul’
In Jerusalem, police officers manned barriers to prevent protesters, many waving Israeli flags, from reaching parliament. In Tel Aviv, police said officers arrested eight demonstrators for breaching public order and disobeying instructions.
“This isn’t a small change to a piece of legislation,” Tamara Newman, director of international relations at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, told Al Jazeera. “It’s a complete judicial overhaul to dramatically weaken the court system in Israel, whose role is to be a check and balance on the government.”
“This government will have absolute power,” she said. “The government can then pass any law.”
The bill would give elected representatives more control of the judicial system by giving the government a de facto majority in the process to nominate judges.
Currently, jurists are chosen by a panel overseen by the justice minister. It includes judges, lawmakers and lawyers representing the Israeli Bar Association.
Under the government proposals, the association’s members would be removed and two “members of the public” would be named by the justice minister’s office instead. Sitting judges would still be on the panel as would another Israeli minister.
The sweeping judicial reform programme is a cornerstone of Netanyahu’s administration, an alliance of ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties that took office in December.
Netanyahu has expressed a willingness to talk to the opposition but promised to press on with the legislation without delay.
Lawmakers are set to hold their first vote on Monday on measures to change the composition of the committee to select judges.
Monday’s vote on part of the legislation is just the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition’s determination to move ahead and is seen by many critics as an act of bad faith.
A bill to prevent judges from ruling against the so-called Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi-constitution, is also on the parliamentary agenda.
The standoff has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide between Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.
Opposition chief Yair Lapid said the situation amounts to “the worst internal crisis the state of Israel has ever known”.
‘Pump the brakes’
The plan has even sparked rare warnings from the US, Israel’s chief international ally.
US Ambassador Tom Nides said on a podcast over the weekend that Israel should “pump the brakes” on the legislation and seek a consensus on reforms that would protect Israel’s democratic institutions.
His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu allies who told Nides to stay out of Israel’s internal affairs.
“The US, which normally doesn’t get involved in Israeli politics, has even intervened and has asked for the government to put a break on that decision, to negotiate with the opposition party,” Al Jazeera’s Sara Khairat reported from West Jerusalem.
While Israel has long boasted of its democratic credentials, critics say that claim is tainted by the country’s West Bank occupation and the treatment of its Palestinian minority.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens, who may have the most to lose in the legal overhaul, have largely sat out the protests, in part because of discrimination they suffer at home and because of Israel’s 55-year military occupation over their brethren in the West Bank.
Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank can vote in Israeli elections and are generally protected by Israeli laws while Palestinians in the same territory are subject to military rule and cannot vote.