The Israeli government is in crisis due to divisions over controversial plans to overhaul the country’s judicial system.
Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets yet again on Sunday night in unprecedentedly large protests that rocked the coastal city of Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.
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The demonstrations were triggered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to fire his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday evening after the latter expressed opposition to the prime minister’s proposed changes to the judicial system.
The PM was expected to address the nation on Monday morning but he did not. Israeli media reports said he was expected to halt the judicial changes, but members of his far-right governing coalition are threatening to quit, raising the prospect of a collapse of the government.
Why are Israelis protesting?
- Large weekly protests have been taking place in Tel Aviv since the start of the year after Netanyahu announced plans to pass legislative changes that protesters and the opposition have said would undermine the state’s democratic system and diminish checks and balances.
- Netanyahu and his supporters say the changes are needed to rein in a judiciary that wields too much power.
- The proposed changes would limit the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, giving the Israeli parliament (Knesset) the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of 120.
- A second proposal would take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review the legality of Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as the country’s constitution.
- The reforms would also change how Supreme Court justices are selected, giving politicians decisive powers in appointing judges.
What was the response to the defence minister’s sacking?
- In the first public dissent from within Netanyahu‘s government, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant announced his opposition to the judicial changes on Saturday in a brief televised statement, saying that “the deepening split” within Israel over the issue was “seeping into the military and defence institutions” and was “a clear, immediate and real danger to Israel’s security”.
- The next day, Netanyahu fired Gallant, sparking huge demonstrations as protesters lit bonfires, blocked highways and breached metal barriers set up by police on Sunday night.
- Sunday’s protests marked a major shift, with protesters’ demands shifting from halting the judicial change plan to some calling for Netanyahu’s removal.
- The country’s main labour union, the Histadrut, announced they would enforce a general strike and bring the country to a complete halt if the PM did not withdraw his plan.
- “I am calling for a general strike,” Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said in a televised address. “We have a mission to stop this legislative process and we will do it,” he said, vowing to “continue to fight”.
- On Monday morning, flights out of Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport were halted, according to Israeli media, as airport workers went on strike.
What has been the response from the Israeli government?
- Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister appointed as part of the new far-right nationalist-religious government that came into office at the end of December, has reportedly threatened to quit the governing coalition if the judicial overhaul plan was stopped.
- “We must not stop the judiciary reform and must not surrender to anarchy,” Ben-Gvir said on Twitter.
- Justice Minister Yariv Levin, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, has also reportedly threatened to quit the coalition.
- Two other members of the Likud – Ministers Ron Dermer and Yoav Kish, along with the ultra-orthodox Shas party Chairman Arye Dery, have however expressed support for a halt to the plans.
- The Religious Zionism party, one of the major parties in the governing coalition, released a statement saying they had been “duly elected and received a clear mandate from the people to restore balance to Israeli democracy”.
- “We owe it to the majority of the people to make their voice heard and to continue this important historical correction,” the party said on Monday.
- On Monday, Israeli President Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu to stop the plan. “For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately,” Herzog said on Twitter.