Israel braces for protests as far-right government targets courts

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TEL AVIV – Tens of thousands of Israelis flooded a central public square in Tel Aviv to protest the country’s far-right government, which in the two weeks since taking office has been hastily planning to overhaul the judiciary and exacerbating an internal political crisis critics are warning of could become violent.

At least 1,000 Israeli police officers are stationed in the city, where an estimated 80,000 Israelis braved a rainstorm to gather in the city’s Habima Square on Saturday night and hoist posters with slogans like “We’re not going to be Iran” and “Shame!”

Smaller protests were underway in front of the president’s residence in Jerusalem, Haifa and other cities across the country. Officers had to be armed with water cannons and directives from the newly appointed, far-right Minister of National Security to act aggressively against protesters displaying “incendiary” signs or blocking roads – code, protester organizers warn, for permission to use excessive force.

Opposition to the new government began almost immediately after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in November elections after a year and a half on the sidelines, propelled by a bloc of once fringe far-right partners. In the two weeks since its inauguration, his government has launched a series of legislative initiatives that are characteristic of them as a “revision” to rectify the “imbalance between the three branches of government”.

But critics say the measures amount to a “coup d’état” that will destroy the national system of checks and balances to save Netanyahu from prosecution in three separate corruption cases and encourage his extremist religious partners to pass legislation banning the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the application of conservative Jewish law to public institutions.

If the judicial overhaul announced by the government this week is implemented, it will be a “fatal blow” to Israeli democracy, overturning the rule of law and legal protections of individual rights, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut said at a conference Thursday.

“This is an unbridled attack on the justice system, as if it were an enemy to be attacked and suppressed,” she said.

The most important rights at risk, critics say, is the freedom to protest — a hallowed practice in a notoriously quarrelsome country, kept intact even during the harsh Covid lockdowns two years ago, when courts ruled in favor of protesters who during Netanyahu’s previous rule, called for his impeachment.

The rise of the far right in Israel has turned attention back to the occupation of the West Bank

The new protest movement is led by left-wing activists and prominent opposition figures from the political center and left, who warn that the government, while democratically elected, has gone too far over its mandate in attempts to erode Israel’s democratic institutions, which, it turns out, from surveys, about half of the national idea should be preserved.

“If you continue on this path, the responsibility for the civil war in Israeli society will lie with you,” former defense minister Benny Gantz said in a televised statement to Netanyahu this week, calling on Israelis to take to the streets. to go. .

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said that disagreements are acceptable, but that “you also have to define the boundaries of the conversation … there is no permission to block roads or other things that harm civilians.” His statement came a day after a man from the predominantly ultra-Orthodox Israeli town of Elad attempted to use his car to run into anti-government protesters in the southern city of Beersheva.

“This is how democracy collapses in one day,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the incident.

Ahead of Saturday’s protest, Israeli police warned of “public disorder” — a rhetorical nod to the hardline National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who this week issued new guidelines for police to use water cannons against protesters and detain participants who post “incendiary” posters or block roads. He has also banned the public display of Palestinian flags, which he equated with supporting terrorism.

Tzvika Foghel, a legislator from Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, said opposition leaders, including two former Israeli army chiefs of staff, “should be arrested and handcuffed” for calling for protests.

Roee Neuman, one of the protest organizers, said the government is going to great lengths to “delegitimize” the movement.

“In the last 10 years, protests from all sectors — the right-wing, the ultra-Orthodox, you name it — have never had statements like this,” he said.

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Critics say Netanyahu and his political allies have a different perspective on the rule of law, having been the target of police investigations for years. In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on multiple charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and is currently on trial on three corruption charges. In January 2022, Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party who has been appointed Minister of the Interior and Minister of Health, was convicted of tax fraud.

Ben Gvir, a West Bank settler leader who has defended Israeli youths accused of violent attacks against Palestinians for decades, was deemed unfit for mandatory military service because of his extremist activism and was convicted of racist incitement against Arabs and support for terror groups.

Netanyahu’s proposed “judicial overhaul” includes a head-to-toe transformation of Israel’s judiciary. It would be the The Knesset will override Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority vote. And it would give ministers more influence over who serves the courts — including those overseeing Netanyahu’s corruption trial.

‘The king can do no wrong. There are no controls on the government,” said Mordechai Kremnitzer, a renowned Israeli lawyer and professor of law at Hebrew University. “We are in the middle of an effort by the political majority to implement regime change, transforming Israel from a country of functional liberal democracy into a populist-authoritarian, nationalist-religious nation characterized primarily by absolute power. in the hands of the majority. ”

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