Israelis continue protests over judicial overhaul plans

Demonstrators take to the streets days after Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to freeze the controversial proposal.

People take part in a demonstration against Israeli PM
People take part in a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government's plan for judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have protested in Tel Aviv for the 13th straight week against a controversial judicial overhaul that has now been suspended by the government while talks are held with party representatives.

Carrying Israeli flags on Saturday, people marched through the centre of Israel’s commercial hub, chanting “democracy” and carrying placards condemning the hard-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Smaller rallies took place in other cities.

“We don’t believe anything that comes out of Bibi’s [Netanyahu] mouth. We believe it’s just a political stunt aimed at stopping the protest,” said Emanuel Keller, 30, at a demonstration in Jerusalem.

Demonstrations erupted in January after the coalition announced its reform package, which the government says is necessary to rebalance powers between parliamentarians and the judiciary.

The proposed reforms would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges, which opponents have said could imperil Israeli democracy.

On Monday, Netanyahu announced a pause in the passage of the necessary legislation through parliament, in the face of a general strike triggered by his announcement that he was firing Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for calling for just such a pause.

People take part in a demonstration against the government in Tel Aviv
The proposed reforms would curtail the authority of the Supreme Court [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]

Talks for compromise

By Tuesday, representatives of most of parliament’s parties had begun talks at the residence of President Isaac Herzog to try to formulate legislation that would be acceptable to both sides of the political spectrum.

Al Jazeera’s Bernard Smith, reporting from Tel Aviv, said that a wide spectrum of the Israeli population was against Netanyahu’s plans for a judicial overhaul.

“A lot of people here don’t believe the prime minister when he says he will genuinely engage in consultations,” he said.

He added that Netanyahu is under a lot of pressure from his far-right allies to press on with the judicial reforms despite the nationwide protests against the move.

Critics have viewed the government’s drive as a threat to the court’s independence and an attempt at a legal coup. Proponents have said it is seeking a less elitist, interventionist bench.

Netanyahu, on trial for corruption charges he has denied, said reforms are needed to balance the branches of government. His Likud party and political allies in the far-right have been calling on their political base to stage counter-demonstrations.

Israeli media estimated more than 170,000 people attended anti-government protests in Tel Aviv, while organisers said more than 450,000 people attended demonstrations nationwide.

“Netanyahu’s attempt to put the protesters to sleep failed,” said the organisers of the Umbrella movement. “Over 445,000 pro-democracy demonstrators took to the streets of Israel tonight, in one of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history. We will continue to be in the streets, until we guarantee that the State of Israel is a democracy.”

Many political commentators and opposition figures have voiced scepticism about the chances of Herzog’s mediation efforts, with the coalition saying it would complete legislation in the next parliamentary session if talks failed.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has not presented Gallant with the dismissal letter required by law, so the defence minister has been going about his duties as usual.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies