TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli protesters pressed ahead Thursday with demonstrations against a contentious government plan to overhaul the judiciary, pushing back against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he rejected a compromise proposal that was meant to defuse the crisis.
Despite the effort by the country’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, to seek a way out of the stalemate, the sides appeared to be further digging in. Netanyahu and his allies were set to barrel forward with their original plan despite weeks of mass protests and widespread opposition from across Israeli society and beyond as well as warnings by Herzog that Israel was headed toward an “abyss.”
Protesters were kicking off a third day of disruption since the crisis began, with thousands of protesters blocking roads across the country, including the main highway of the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv. Protesters in Jerusalem drew a large red and pink streak throughout the city on streets leading to the country’s Supreme Court and a small flotilla of boats was blocking the shipping lane off the coast of the northern city of Haifa.
“The elected government is doing a legislative blitz that aims to give absolute power to the executive. And absolute power to the executive with no checks and balances is simply a dictatorship. And this is what we’re fighting against,” said Shlomit Tassa, a protester in Tel Aviv, waving an Israeli flag.
Police said they had made several arrests in locations around the country. A large demonstration was expected later in the day in Tel Aviv.
Last week, Netanyahu had to be airlifted to the country’s main international airport for an overseas state visit after protesters blocked the road leading there, holding signs that read “don’t come back!” Tens of thousands have been attending weekly protests across the country each Saturday night.
The overhaul, advanced by a prime minister who is on trial for corruption and Israel’s most right-wing government ever, has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. It has sparked an uproar from top legal officials, business leaders who warn against the economic effects of the plan, and from within the country’s military, it’s most trusted institution, where reservists have pledged not to serve under what they see as impending regime change.
The government says the plan will correct an imbalance between the judicial and executive branches that they say has given the courts too much sway in how Israel is governed. Critics say the overhaul upends the country’s system of checks and balances and gives the prime minister and the government too much power and strips it of judicial oversight. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, could find an escape route from his legal woes through the overhaul.
Herzog had been meeting for weeks with actors on both sides of the divide to try to reach an acceptable middle ground and his proposal appeared to offer incentives to both sides.
But Netanyahu swiftly rejected the plan as he boarded a plane to Germany, saying it didn’t rectify the issue of balance between the branches. A small group of Israelis in Berlin protested Netanyahu’s official visit there as Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, expressed concern about the overhaul.
Herzog said Thursday that his proposal was meant to be a basis for further talks. “It’s not the end of the discussion but the beginning of it,” he said.
In Tel Aviv, five opposition party leader staged a joint press conference and called on Netanyahu to accept the president’s proposal. Yair Lapid, the Knesset opposition leader, said that “we welcome the president’s proposal because in a civil war, there will only be losers.”
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, called on Netanyahu and his allies to show “leadership, to look at the reality and stop.”
The White House on Thursday reiterated concerns about the proposed judiciary overhaul and urged Israel’s leaders to find consensus.
“The genius of our democracy — and frankly Israel’s democracy — is that they’re built on strong institutions, that they include checks and balances that foster an independent judiciary,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “We support President Herzog’s ongoing effort to seek a solution that is consistent with those same democratic principles.”
But it was not clear how much the ruling coalition would be able to bend away from its original plan, parts of which it has pledged to pass before the parliament goes on recess for the Passover holiday early next month.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that consulted with the president on his plan, said the coalition was beginning to understand the toll its plan was taking on Israeli cohesion, on the country’s economy and on its own popularity. Still, he said the coalition hadn’t yet reached the point where it would back down.
“Perhaps we will have to pay a greater public price and reach a lower point until this would become the baseline for achieving a compromise,” he said of the president’s plan.
The embattled Netanyahu, once a stalwart supporter of the independence of the courts, returned to power late last year after more than a year as opposition leader, amid a political crisis over his fitness to rule while on trial that sent Israelis to the polls five times in less than four years.
He cobbled together a coalition with ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies who have long sought to curb the powers of the judiciary. Parties who support West Bank settlements see the court as an obstacle to their expansionist ambitions, while religious factions are driven to limit the court’s ability to rule on matters they fear could disrupt their way of life.
But critics say there are also personal grievances involved in the effort. Beyond Netanyahu’s charges, which he says are unrelated to the overhaul, a key Netanyahu ally was disqualified by the Supreme Court from serving as a Cabinet minister because of past convictions over tax violations. Under the overhaul, they each have laws that could protect their positions from any intervention from the courts.
Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, Israel.
Tia Goldenberg, The Associated Press