Here’s why Israelis are protesting Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan
Written by ABC Audio All Rights Reserved on March 28, 2023
(JERUSALEM) — Tens of thousands of people are marching in the streets in Israel on Monday, the latest day in a series of protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul.
Here’s what you need to know about the deepening political crisis:
Why are people protesting in Israel?
Stores, restaurants and the biggest airport in Israel were closing their doors on Monday amid an escalation in protests that have kept the nation’s attention for weeks. Tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people filled the streets in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. The country’s stock exchange is set to close on Tuesday as part of a strike.
The country’s biggest union, Histadrut, announced on Monday that it would begin a “historic” strike, with most of its 800,000 members stopping work in protest of Netanyahu’s reform plan.
Israelis are protesting against a judicial reform plan proposed by Netanyahu’s hardline nationalist government — a plan that some see as a consolidation of power, with parliament increasing its oversight of the court system.
Netanyahu on Monday called for protesters to “behave responsibly and not to act violently,” according to a translation of a statement he posted on Twitter.
“We are brotherly people,” he said.
Supporters of Netanyahu’s plan are also scheduled to counterprotest Monday night.
Netanyahu was meeting with Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, and other politicians at the Knesset Monday afternoon but still has yet to make any public statements on the legislation.
What is the judicial overhaul in Israel?
After Netanyahu, a member of the conservative Likud Party, formed a right-wing coalition government in December 2022, he announced he would return to his role as Israel’s prime minister.
His government, which is said to be the most right-wing government in the country’s history, then announced it would introduce a measure countering what it saw as the growing influence of the judicial system.
The changes would allow lawmakers at the Knesset — Israel’s parliament — to override many decisions made by the country’s Supreme Court. It would also give ruling lawmakers more control over appointments to the high court. Opponents of the plan say it amounts to a power grab.
Some officials have said Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for charges including corruption and bribery, should bow out of the discussions over the reform, calling his participation a conflict of interest.
Netanyahu spoke on March 19 with President Joe Biden, who told him that “fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support,” according to a readout of the call from the White House.
In his conversation with Biden, Netanyahu said “that Israel was, and will remain, a strong and vibrant democracy,” according to a statement from his office.
Why did Netanyahu fire the country’s defense minister?
The biggest spark in the continuing protests was the firing of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Sunday.
On Saturday, Gallant had spoken out against the judicial overhaul.
“The events taking place in Israeli society do not spare the Israel Defense Forces — from all sides, feelings of anger, pain and disappointment arise, with an intensity I have never encountered before,” Gallant said in a televised address on Saturday after the end of the Jewish Sabbath. “I see how the source of our strength is being eroded.”
Gallant said that the national crisis over the judicial overhaul has created a “clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state.”
Netanyahu’s office did not provide further details of the firing, but it signaled he doesn’t appear to be backing down from the judicial plan yet.
What happens next?
Several top lawmakers and Netanyahu allies called on Sunday and Monday for Netanyahu to postpone or suspend his plan. But the prime minister during months of public debate has not signaled his willingness to do so.
“In case you haven’t noticed, Israel is in the midst of a little thing on judicial reform,” Netanyahu said in a speech at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in February.
He said at the time that Israel is “a democray and will remain a democracy, with majority rule and proper safeguards of civil liberties.” Much of the conversation about the proposal as been “frankly reckless and dangerous,” he said at the time.
Parts of the overhaul could be enacted as early as this week.
The prime minister was meeting late Sunday with top officials at his home in Jerusalem, with thousands of protestors nearby. Observers said he may be considering whether to pause the changes.
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