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Netanyahu’s coalition plunged into chaos as protests widen

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Jerusalem: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition was plunged into chaos last night, after mass protests over the sacking of his defence chief piled pressure on the government to halt its bitterly contested plans to overhaul the judiciary.

Netanyahu had been expected to make a televised address announcing the suspension of the plans. But, amid reports that his nationalist-religious coalition risked breaking apart, Israeli media said the statement was postponed.

Tens of thousands of Israelis had earlier poured into the streets of cities across the country in a spontaneous outburst of anger after the prime minister fired his defence minister for challenging the judicial overhaul plan.

The unrest deepened a monthslong crisis over Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary, which has sparked mass protests, alarmed business leaders and former security chiefs and drawn concern from the United States and other close allies.

Critics say the constellation of laws will remove the checks and balances in Israel’s democratic system and concentrate power in the hands of the governing coalition. Netanyahu and his allies say the plan will restore a balance between the judicial and executive branches and rein in what they see as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.

Netanyahu’s dismissal of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant signalled that the prime minister and his allies will barrel ahead this week with the overhaul plan. Gallant had been the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to speak out against it, saying the deep divisions were threatening to weaken the military.

In a brief statement, Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister had dismissed Gallant. Netanyahu later tweeted, “We must all stand strong against refusal.”

Tens of thousands of Israelis poured into the streets in protest after Netanyahu’s announcement, blocking Tel Aviv’s main artery, transforming the Ayalon highway into a sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags and lighting a large bonfire in the middle of the road.

But as droves of protesters flooded the streets late into the night, Likud ministers began indicating willingness to hit the brakes. Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would support him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog also urged the government on Monday to halt the overhaul.

“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately,” he said on Twitter.

Gallant had said countrywide protests against the judicial overhaul, which have included growing numbers of military reservists, were also affecting regular forces and undermining national security.

Israeli police used a water cannon to push back protesters who broke barricades near Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem, Israeli’s Channel 12 TV network reported.

In response to Netanyahu’s firing of Gallant, Israel’s consul-general in New York said he was resigning in protest.

“I can no longer continue representing this government,” Asaf Zamir said on Twitter. “I believe it is my duty to ensure that Israel remains a beacon of democracy and freedom in the world.”

Netanyahu’s office did not provide further details about the firing of Gallant.

The United States said it was deeply concerned by Sunday’s events and saw an urgent need for compromise, while repeating calls to safeguard democratic values.

Critics say the plan upends Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances and pushes Israel down a path toward autocracy.

Galit Distal Atbaryan, Netanyahu’s public diplomacy minister, said the prime minister summoned Gallant to his office and told him “that he doesn’t have any faith in him anymore and therefore he is fired”.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Gallant’s dismissal was a “new low for the anti-Zionist government that harms national security and ignores warnings of all defence officials”.

“The prime minister of Israel is a threat to the security of the state of Israel,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.

Netanyahu’s government is pushing ahead for a parliamentary vote this week on a centrepiece of the overhaul – a law that would give the governing coalition the final say over all judicial appointments. The government also plans to push for parliamentary authority to override Supreme Court decisions with a basic majority and limit judicial review of laws.

Meanwhile, an Israeli good governance group on Sunday asked the country’s Supreme Court to punish Netanyahu for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement meant to prevent him from dealing with the country’s judiciary while he is on trial for corruption.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a fierce opponent of the overhaul, asked the court to force Netanyahu to obey the law and sanction him either with a fine or prison time for not doing so. It said he was not above the law.

“A prime minister who doesn’t obey the court and the provisions of the law is privileged and an anarchist,” said Eliad Shraga, the head of the group, echoing language used by Netanyahu and his allies against protesters opposed to the overhaul. “The prime minister will be forced to bow his head before the law and comply with the provisions of the law.”

The prime minister responded by saying the appeal should be dismissed and that the Supreme Court didn’t have grounds to intervene.

Netanyahu is barred by the country’s attorney-general from directly dealing with his government’s plan to transform the judiciary, based on a conflict-of-interest agreement he is bound to, and which the Supreme Court acknowledged in a ruling over Netanyahu’s fitness to serve while on trial for corruption. Instead, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a close confidant of Netanyahu, is spearheading the overhaul.

But on Thursday, after parliament passed a law making it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, Netanyahu said he was unshackled from the attorney-general’s decision and vowed to wade into the crisis and “mend the rift” in the nation. That declaration prompted the Attorney-General, Gali Baharav-Miara, to warn that Netanyahu was breaking his conflict-of-interest agreement by entering the fray.

The fast-paced legal and political developments have catapulted Israel into uncharted territory and toward a burgeoning constitutional crisis, said Guy Lurie, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

“We are at the start of a constitutional crisis in the sense that there is a disagreement over the source of authority and legitimacy of different governing bodies,” he said.

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Article source: The Age / AP, Reuters | ByIlan Ben Zion | March 27, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000