Protests continue in Israel as Knesset prepares to vote on judicial reform

Last-ditch efforts to reach a compromise dragged into the night as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to put a key plank of his government’s controversial judicial reforms to the vote Monday after undergoing surgery to fit a pacemaker.

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Jerusalem to oppose Netanyahu’s proposal to curb the powers of judges, which critics fear will undermine Israel’s democracy, as lawmakers debated the bill late into Sunday night.

Demonstrators backing the government and its reform plans rallied in Tel Aviv, the epicentre of 29 straight weeks of anti-government protests.

A vote is expected in the Knesset Monday on the draft law which would limit Supreme Court judges’ ability to strike down government decisions they deem “unreasonable”.

President Joe Biden urged Israel in a statement Sunday not to rush increasingly “divisive” judicial reforms, given the other challenges facing the US ally.

In a statement first published by news site Axios and later shared with AFP by the White House, Biden said, “It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.”

“From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” he said.

As the crisis looked set to come to a head, President Isaac Herzog returned from a visit to the United States and drove directly to Sheba Medical Center for a meeting with Netanyahu late Sunday.

The premier had been rushed to the hospital near Tel Aviv late on Saturday for surgery to fit the pacemaker.

“This is a time of emergency. An agreement must be reached,” Herzog said in a statement issued by his office.

Herzog later met with opposition chief Yair Lapid and was also due to confer with another opposition figure, Benny Gantz.

The president’s office declined to comment on the meetings.

The driving force behind the reforms, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, said the bill being put to lawmakers on Monday had already undergone changes to accommodate critics, but added that the coalition was still open to “understandings”.

“Understandings means the opposition’s willingness to make concessions too,” he told supporters at the Tel Aviv rally.

‘Doing great’ 

The overnight announcement from Netanyahu’s office that the 73-year-old was having a pacemaker fitted came days after he had been hospitalised for a reported spell of dizziness.

On Sunday afternoon, Netanyahu issued a video saying he was “doing great.”

“We’re continuing our efforts to complete the legislation, and the efforts to do it in agreement (with the opposition),” he said, wearing a suit jacket open at the neck. 

“Either way, I want you to know that tomorrow (Monday) morning I’m joining my friends at parliament,” he said.

The hospital said Netanyahu remained in its cardiology department for observation.

Netanyahu’s government, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues that the proposed reforms will prevent overreach by unelected judges and ensure a better balance of power.

Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who has been fighting corruption charges in court, of a conflict of interest and some protesters have labelled him the “crime minister”.

“We have to keep up the pressure, we have to safeguard our democracy,” said one demonstrator, Amir Goldstein, who had spent the night in a protest camp outside parliament.

‘We can still stop’

Inside the chamber, opposition leader Lapid said: “We want to continue to live in a Jewish and a democratic state … We must stop this legislation.”

The proposed judicial revamp has split the nation and, since its unveiling in January, set off one of the biggest protest movements in Israel’s history, also sparking concern in Washington and among other allies abroad.

Gantz called for a halt to the legislative process on the bills. “We can still stop, come to an agreement on the reasonability clause,” he told the Knesset. “We have to stop everything.”

The debate was expected to last into Monday morning, with more than 20 lawmakers scheduled to speak against the bill, according to a list provided by parliament.

If approved, the “reasonability” clause would be the first major component of the overhaul to become law. Other proposed changes include allowing the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.

The protests, meanwhile, have drawn support from across the political and social spectrum, among secular and religious groups, peace activists and military reservists, blue-collar and tech sector workers.

One protester opposed to the judicial reform package, Shanna Orlik, said she was rallying against what she called a “misogynist and far-right government”.

“We don’t have a constitution, and the only thing that protects our rights is the Supreme Court, and the government intends to destroy that,” she said.

(FRANCE 24  with AFP, )

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