Netanyahu’s plans so radical, president warns ‘powder keg about to explode’

Tel Aviv: Israeli President Isaac Herzog has used a rare prime-time speech to warn the country is on the verge of “constitutional and social collapse” over a government plan to reduce the power of the judiciary.

Herzog, known more as reliably dull than alarmist, was speaking of a widespread concern that the change planned by the new government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is so radical that it raises doubts about the future of the country’s democracy, its appeal to foreign investors and ties to its strongest allies.

“The absence of dialogue is tearing us apart from within, and I’m telling you loud and clear: This powder keg is about to explode,” Herzog told the nation. “This is an emergency.”

Israelis protest against the plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem.Credit:AP

Tens of thousands have demonstrated weekly against the government’s plans while scores of economists, business leaders, retired security chiefs and legal scholars have all gone on record in opposition.

Shortly after Herzog spoke on Sunday night (Monday AEDT), calling for compromise and dialogue, the heads of the country’s top banks — Hapoalim, Discount, Leumi and Mizrahi — all expressed support for his approach.

Netanyahu and his aides want to increase the government’s role in appointing judges and greatly limit the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down legislation. While they aren’t alone in saying that the high court has too much power, many say the planned remedy is far worse than the problem.

Israelis have been protesting in Tel Aviv, above, and other cities for weeks against the plans by the new Netanyahu government to overhaul the judiciary system.Credit:AP

Critics say the measures would weaken the Supreme Court, limit judicial oversight and grant more power to politicians. Protesters say that would undermine democracy.

“We [are] …here in order to demonstrate against the government of Israel under Netanyahu, which in our belief is against democracy and are going to do anything they can in order to take out democracy of Israel,” said Illan Bendori, 70, at a protest in Tel Aviv.

Netanyahu has dismissed the protests as a refusal by leftist opponents to accept the results of last November’s election, which produced one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history.

“We are …very proud of our democracy and he wants to make Israel something else. We will not agree, we will do everything in our power to stop it,” Hadar Weis, 61, told Reuters at the protest in Tel Aviv.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, pictured, is alarmed by plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.Credit:AP

All of this is happening as violence among Israelis and Palestinians has increased in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The security cabinet announced plans late on Sunday for the legalisation of nine settlement outposts and an increased police presence in the occupied areas as an answer to Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians there.

The overlapping crises have led to a level of discourse that itself threatens internal violence among Jews.

A coalition MP blamed the Supreme Court chief justice for the death of three people in an attack by a Palestinian in Jerusalem. Earlier, a retired combat pilot wrote in a Facebook post that if a prime minister assumes dictatorial powers, “he deserves to die”.

Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu staged a comeback last year.Credit:AP

Israel’s closest allies are also speaking up.

President Joe Biden told a New York Times columnist over the weekend that, like US democracy, Israel’s was based on institutional checks and balances, notably through an independent judiciary.

Herzog, whose role is one of symbolic leadership rather than policy, noted the need to work together amid the rising violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank. He laid out a framework to start talks towards a compromise.

“The threats from outside are great enough,” he said.

Former prime minister Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition, called Herzog’s negotiating framework reasonable, noting its stipulation that talks be conditioned on immediate suspension of the legislative process.

“Until then, the struggle will continue, the protests will not stop,” Lapid said in a statement. “We are fighting for the values of the Declaration of Independence, and for the very idea of living here together as one people.”

Israel has only one legislative body and in such a parliamentary system, the executive can exert enormous control, leaving only the courts to rein in perceived abuses of minorities and human rights. The concern of many opponents is that the proposed changes would make Israel far less open and less appealing as a place to invest, increasing the influence of religious fundamentalists.

The first part of the planned judicial changes are due to be debated in a parliamentary committee on Monday. A new large protest is planned for outside the parliament building in Jerusalem.

Israel’s N12 news released a poll on Saturday revealing that 62 per cent of Israelis want the proposed judicial plans to be either paused or halted all together.

Bloomberg, Reuters

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