JOSEPH FEDERMAN (Associated Press)
JERUSALEM (TodayNews). Tens of thousands of protesters on Tuesday blocked highways and train stations and gathered in downtown Tel Aviv during nationwide demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform plan.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have gained urgency in recent days as Netanyahu and his parliamentary allies push the program forward. The first bill in the package, a measure to limit the Supreme Court’s supervisory powers, could become law as early as next week.
The unrest also overshadowed a visit to the White House by nominal Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was invited to Washington to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary.
The Duke, a political centrist, has been involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to reach a compromise to overhaul the judiciary, which has strained relations between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden.
In a meeting with Biden in the Oval Office, Duke acknowledged that Israel “as a society is undergoing heated debate.” But he said the debate shows that Israeli society is “strong and resilient.” He added that the country should strive for a “friendly consensus”.
Biden, who has criticized the overhaul plan, said the US commitment to Israel is strong and the bond between the two countries is “unbreakable.”
Netanyahu and his allies say the overhaul is needed to limit the powers of the unelected judiciary, in particular the Supreme Court, which they say overly interferes with government decisions.
Their opponents, who represent a wide section of Israeli society, say the plan represents a power grab by Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies that will destroy the country’s fragile system of checks and balances. They also say the prime minister, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies are motivated by various grievances with the justice system.
Late Tuesday evening, protesters gathered outside US diplomatic offices, filled Tel Aviv’s central square and damaged the city’s main thoroughfare.
Earlier, they had gathered near the Israeli stock exchange and the military headquarters. Business leaders have repeatedly warned that the weakening of the legal system will deter foreign investors. Reservists in key military units, including fighter pilots and cybersecurity agents, have threatened to stop reporting for duty.
“This government is completely insane. We fear for our democracy, for everything we have built, which is why we are all fighting here,” said Itay Bar Nathan, 48, a high-tech executive who waved a “Band of Brothers” flag. military reservists in the protest movement.
The demonstrators, many of whom were reservists, created human chains and blocked one of the entrances to the Israeli military headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv.
Protesters filled the railway stations in the afternoon at rush hour. Police closed the central train station in Tel Aviv to prevent protesters from entering. Many blew horns or carried blue and white Israeli flags.
Outside the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, demonstrators lit smoke bombs, drummed and chanted, and held signs reading “Save Our Startup Nation.”
“We came to the stock exchange because it is a symbol of what this dictatorship madness is doing to the Israeli economy,” protester Zvia Bader said. “We have become a third world country. Our economy has no chance.”
The Israel Medical Association also announced that doctors would go on strike for two hours on Wednesday to protest the law. Emergency surgeries will continue as normal, said Dr. Hagay Levin, former head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
At least 45 people were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, police said.
Netanyahu leads the most ultra-nationalist and religiously conservative government in Israel’s 75-year history.
His overhaul plan exposed widespread divisions in Israeli society, largely based on religious and economic differences.
Netanyahu’s allies are motivated by many grievances against the judiciary.
His ultra-Orthodox allies, for example, fear the court will overturn exceptions that allow young male believers to skip their mandatory military service to continue their seminary studies. Others have spoken out against LGBTQ+ rights, while several cabinet ministers are leaders of hard-line settlers who remain furious over Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and accuse the courts of siding with the Palestinians.
The protesters, on the other hand, are mostly from Israel’s secular middle class, who believe the government plans to restrict their lifestyle and the country’s liberal traditions.
The coalition took office in December after winning the nation’s fifth election in less than four years. This election, like the previous four that had stalled, were referendums on Netanyahu’s ability to serve as prime minister during the trial.
Weekly mass protests forced Netanyahu to put on hold a major overhaul in March, but he restarted the plan last month after compromise talks with the political opposition failed.
Last week, the Israeli Parliament gave initial approval to a key part of a major overhaul that will prevent the Supreme Court from overturning decisions it deems “unreasonable.” Netanyahu’s coalition spent Tuesday dismissing 26,000 objections to the bill filed by opposition MPs.
The law is intended to serve as a safeguard against corruption and the misappointment of unqualified political friends to key positions. But Netanyahu’s allies see this as an infringement on the powers of elected officials. Judges invoked the clause earlier this year when they said the veteran politician’s cabinet appointment was unjustified because of his past conviction for bribery and a plea deal for tax offenses.
The bill has already received preliminary approval in parliament and is due to receive formal approval next week unless Netanyahu decides to freeze the law.
Other proposed laws under revision would give legislators greater control over the appointment of judges and give parliament the power to overturn decisions of higher courts and pass laws not subject to judicial review.
Protests continued when Duke landed in Washington. He was scheduled to meet with Biden on Tuesday and address Congress on Wednesday.
The visit drew attention to Biden’s refusal to invite Netanyahu to the White House so far. Such visits are standard protocol for Israeli prime ministers. But Biden said he was unhappy with Netanyahu’s new government, both because of the overhaul and the rapid expansion of West Bank settlements built on occupied land claimed by the Palestinians.
Biden spoke to Netanyahu by phone on Monday and invited him to meet in the US this fall. But he did not say whether the meeting would take place at the White House or at a neutral location such as the UN General Assembly.
AP correspondents Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Sam McNeil in Tel Aviv provided reporting.