image Photo: Flash90

Israeli anti-reform demos endure

Israelis have taken to the streets for more than five months in protest of plans by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the judiciary.

By Erin Viner

Waving of hundreds if not thousands of Israeli flags, in what has become the hallmark the movement, crowds once again gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities across Israel. No official estimates about the size of the rallies has been released.

Mira Marcus-Kalish, a university researcher, told Reuters that she can no longer keep track of how many protests she has attended. “Somebody has to understand that we have our children and we have to leave a reliable country for them for the future. We don’t have any other option.”

There have been by unprecedented weekly nationwide demonstrations by tens of thousands of Israelis since the right-wing Netanyahu government proposed a sweeping “reform of governance” in January that would grant politicians greater sway over the selection of judges.

It would also limit the power of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation.

While the coalition, consisting of the Premier’s Likud party with its religious and far-right nationalist allies, insists the reforms are necessary to redress decades of overreach by the judiciary and need to restore balance with the legislative and executive branches of government. Critics maintain that the plan would endanger civil liberties and harm the economy while presenting a dangerous threat to independence of the courts by the Prime Minister, who is on trial for corruption charges which he denies. The proposal has drawn fierce condemnation from Opposition Members of Knesset (MKs), legal officials, military reservists and advocacy groups – in what has been described as Israel’s worst-ever crisis that is further broadening already deep political divisions in Israeli society

The introduction of the reforms have also spooked some foreign investors as well as international credit agencies. Top economists and national security veterans have warned of fallout, saying an independent court system is crucial to Israel’s economic strength and defenses against attempts to isolate it internationally.

The demonstration peaked in late March when Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for having broken ranks by calling for the plan to be halted. The decision was later reversed after Israelis launched a landmark nationwide protest.

The anti-reform activists can claim some success in that the overhaul has not been approved as quickly as Netanyahu had envisioned, although his government nevertheless remains committed to pushing through the changes.

Under pressure at home and from the country’s Western allies, including the United States, Netanyahu agreed to delay an initial deadline for a 15 March Knesset vote on the matter to 15 June to allow for compromise negotiations brokered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Israel’s president, whose role is largely ceremonial, has been trying to mediate a resolution to the crisis between the coalition and opposition Members of Knesset (MKs) although so far no agreement has emerged. Negotiations are due to resume tomorrow.

“I praise the president for his initiative and the temporary calm he managed to create, but factually, there hasn’t been progress,” said Gadi Eisenkot, an opposition lawmaker and former IDF Chief of Staff. During an interview with Israel’s Channel 12, Eisenkot called for the proposed legislation to be frozen for a year.

After the Netanyahu government shifted focus to passing a controversial state budget last week – which was also marred by public protests, the highly-contested overhaul has returned to the forefront.