Israel’s president calls for halt to judicial overhaul after mass protests

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Israel’s president has urged the government to crack down on massive street protests, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sacked his defense minister for opposing the move.

Isaac Herzog said on Twitter, “For the sake of responsibility, for the unity of the people of Israel, I call upon you to immediately halt the legislative process.”

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The warning from the head of state – who is supposed to stand above politics and whose work is largely ceremonial – underscores the danger posed by the judicial proposals.

It followed a dramatic night of protests as tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets on Sunday night after Netanyahu fired the country’s defense minister. Yoav Galant had called on the prime minister to rescind the proposals that would divide the country, which led to mass protests and increased discontent within the military.

What are the Israeli protests about and what happens next?

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Netanyahu’s move on Sunday underscored his determination to press on with the overhaul, which also angered business leaders and raised concern among Israel’s allies.

Protesters blocked Tel Aviv’s main artery late in the evening, turning the Ayalon Highway into a sea of ​​blue and white Israeli flags and lighting a huge bonfire in the middle of the road.

Protests against the sacking of Defense Minister Yoav Galant on Sunday night in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters

Protests took place in Beersheba, Haifa and Jerusalem, where thousands gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence. Police scuffled with protesters and sprayed water cannons at the crowd. Thousands of people then marched from the residence to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

“We saw very difficult scenes tonight,” Herzog wrote.

“I am addressing the prime minister, the members of the government… The eyes of all the people of Israel are on you. The eyes of the entire Jewish people are on you. The eyes of the whole world are on you.

“Come to your senses now! This is not a political moment, this is a moment of leadership and responsibility.”

A parliamentary vote this week will take place on a centerpiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the governing coalition final authority over all judicial appointments. It also wants to pass laws that would give Parliament the power to override Supreme Court rulings and limit judicial review of laws.

Thousands of Israelis block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv
Thousands of Israelis block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In a brief statement on Sunday, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister called for a pause in the legislation until after next month’s Independence Day holiday after the defense minister cited turmoil in the military over the plan. was dismissed.

Gallant was the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against the plan.

But as hordes of protesters took to the streets late into the night, other Likud ministers began to signal a willingness to hit the brakes. Culture Minister Miki Zohar, a confidant of Netanyahu, said the party would support him if he decides to stop the judicial overhaul.

A White House spokesman said the US urged Israeli leaders to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

“As the President recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values ​​have always been and should remain a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” said Adrienne Watson, spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council.

“Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes in a democratic system should be pursued with the widest possible base of popular support.”

Israelis block a highway in Tel Aviv on Sunday, March 26
Israelis block a highway in Tel Aviv on Sunday, March 26. Photograph: Ohd Zwiegenberg/AP

On Sunday, Israel’s Consul General in New York said he was resigning in protest of Netanyahu’s treatment of his defense minister. Asaf Jamir said on Twitter, “I can no longer continue to represent this government.” “I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a symbol of democracy and freedom in the world.”

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Galant’s dismissal “marks a new low for an anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores warnings from all defense officials”.

“The Prime Minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the State of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Avi Dichter, former head of the Shin Bet security agency, is expected to replace Gallant. Ditcher had reportedly considered joining the defense ministry, but announced on Sunday that he was backing the prime minister.

Netanyahu and his allies say his plan would restore balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist Supreme Court with liberal sympathies.

But critics say the laws will remove checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition.

Israel’s president calls for halt to judicial overhaul after mass protests

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