Israelis have taken to the streets en masse in protest against the government’s proposed changes to the judicial system, blocking roadways across the country and intensifying a months-long campaign decrying the move.
Thousands of people carrying flags and signs marched on a Tel Aviv thoroughfare on Thursday, stopping traffic in the middle of the workday. A small group burned tyres on the street outside a seaport, briefly blocking trucks. Police forced demonstrators from the road in front of a conference centre in central Israel.
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The protests have escalated since the start of the year when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s hard-right government introduced new legislation that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court.
Military reservists have joined the protests and senior officials in the finance ministry warned this week of an economic backlash.
In Jerusalem, crowds gathered along the walls of the Old City from which they hung a huge replica of the country’s declaration of independence.
“What we are doing here is we are fighting for our lives. We are fighting for our lives as a Jewish people together in the state that we have been building for 75 years,” said Avidan Friedman, who was wearing a prayer shawl over his head.
“We are fighting because we feel like what’s going on now is tearing us apart and we are calling on the government to stop.”
Netanyahu in the meantime pushed ahead with the legislation, which includes bills to give the government decisive sway in electing judges and to limit the court’s power to strike down laws.
Netanyahu – on trial for corruption charges he denies – says the judicial modifications are needed to restore the balance between the branches of government. Critics say it will weaken Israel’s democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.
New law ratified
Earlier on Thursday, a law was ratified by a 61-to-47 final vote limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed, despite worries that it may be meant to shield the incumbent Netanyahu from any fallout from his corruption trials.
The Knesset approved the bill, under which prime ministers can only be deemed unfit and compelled to step aside if the Knesset or three-quarters of cabinet ministers declare them so on physical or psychological grounds.
The amended definition for the “incapacity” of the prime minister is among a number of legislative measures proposed by the religious-nationalist coalition that have tipped Israel into crisis, with the opposition arguing that judicial independence is in peril and the coalition claiming the proposals aim to push back against Supreme Court overreach and restore balance among branches of government.
Reporting from Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said people see the law as one that protects Netanyahu.
“The law stops the attorney general from declaring a serving prime minister as being unfit for office. Netanyahu was very keen on pushing this law through because it allows him, whatever, the court cases going through, to remain as prime minister,” said Khan.
“That angered the protesters and pushed them out onto the streets. There are thousands,” he explained.
“Declaring the prime minister’s incapacity … against the PM’s will, while he is physically and mentally competent to perform his post, serves in practice as an annulment of the election results and democratic process,” the explanatory notes to the proposed amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional “Basic Law” read.
The stipulations fleshed out the Basic Law guidance in the event of a non-functioning prime minister, which previously lacked details on circumstances that may give rise to such situations.
According to the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, the rule had meant that Netanyahu could possibly be declared incapable by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, should she perceive an attempt by him to halt the three court cases against him.
The new law precludes this, IDI senior researcher Amir Fuchs said, adding that he had considered such a finding by Bararav-Miara to be an unlikely “extreme case”.
Baharav-Miara – who was appointed by the former, centrist Israeli government – said last month that Netanyahu must stay out of his coalition’s push for judicial changes because of what she deemed a conflict of interest arising from his trials.
Baharav-Miara’s deputy, Gil Limon, voiced misgivings over the incapacity bill during a Knesset review session on Tuesday.
“What we see before our eyes is a cluster of legislation elements that are most troubling and are being advanced at great speed,” Limon said, according to an official transcript.
“They have the potential to serve the personal interests of a man regarding the outcomes of legal proceedings he is facing.”
Netanyahu denies all charges against him and has cast the trials as a politicised bid to force him from office.