Dispute over judicial reform in Israel: On the streets and in the cabinet

Netanyahu fires Defense Minister Galant who wanted to stop judicial reform. President calls for an immediate end to the reform. Police take action against demonstrators.

nocturnal demonstrator scene with a jet of water

Water cannons against demonstrators: the situation in Tel Aviv is escalating Photo: Oren Ziv/ap

TEL AVIV dpa | Mass protests, an impending general strike and the army on alert: the political crisis in Israel has escalated dramatically after the dismissal of Defense Minister Joav Galant for his criticism of a highly controversial judicial reform. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the streets of Tel Aviv last night to protest against the dismissal ordered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the reform plans of his right-wing religious government. There were violent clashes with the police, who used water cannons and cavalry squadrons.

President Izchak Herzog called on the government to give in. “For the sake of the unity of the Israeli people, for the sake of responsibility, I urge you to stop legislation immediately,” he said early Monday morning. The people are in deep fear. In the morning the protests in front of the Parliament in Jerusalem continued.

In view of the precarious situation, Netanyahu held an emergency meeting at night to decide how to proceed, as several media reported. He is said to have discussed a possible suspension of the reform project with coalition politicians. According to unconfirmed media reports, Netanyahu is planning a speech to the nation in the morning. His office initially did not confirm this.

Netanyahu had dismissed Galant, who belongs to his Likud party, because of his call to halt judicial reform. There have been violent protests for months against the reform, which aims to curtail the influence of the Supreme Court and strengthen the government’s position of power at the expense of the independent judiciary. The previous defense minister called on the government to engage in dialogue with critics on Saturday evening. He warned that national security, and particularly the army’s operational capability, was at stake. For weeks there has been talk of growing resentment in the military, and numerous reservists did not show up for duty in protest against the reform.

The government accuses the Supreme Court of improper interference in political decisions. In the future, Parliament should be able to overturn decisions of the Supreme Court with a simple majority. The prime minister should be better protected against impeachment. Critics see the separation of powers in danger, some even warn against the creeping introduction of a dictatorship.

The anger of many people, who fear for democracy in Israel, is breaking out in the streets. After 200,000 people had already flocked there on Saturday, countless demonstrators with Israeli flags blocked the central road to Jerusalem on Sunday evening in Tel Aviv and set tires on fire. The police used cavalry squadrons and water cannons against the crowd, from which stones were thrown at the emergency services. Angry people broke through a roadblock next to Netanyahu’s home in Jerusalem, and the head of the domestic intelligence agency Shin Bet went there that night.

Universities announced a temporary freeze on teaching in protest at Galant’s dismissal and reform plans. Several mayors went on hunger strike, demanding an immediate containment of the national crisis. The trade union confederation (Histadrut) scheduled a press conference for Monday, apparently to call a general strike.

Netanyahu discussed a possible halt to the reform with several ministers from Sunday evening until late into the night, the Jerusalem Post reported. Justice Minister Jariv Levin, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Education Minister Joav Kisch and Strategic Minister Ron Dermer took part in the crisis talks in his office.

In a joint statement, opposition politicians Jair Lapid and Benny Gantz called on Netanyahu’s party colleagues “not to participate in the destruction of national security”. The head of government “crossed a red line”.

Netanyahu’s three-month-old coalition – the most right-wing the country has ever had – actually wanted to implement core elements of the reform in the coming days. In view of recent events, however, it is unclear whether a law that is intended to give government politicians more influence in the appointment of judges will be voted on Monday as planned.

The plans have also triggered international criticism. The US government, the main ally, expressed deep concern. In view of the planned “fundamental changes to a democratic system,” the White House urged the Israeli leadership to find a compromise as soon as possible.

Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that Israel was in the greatest danger since the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Arab states had surprisingly attacked Israel on the holiest Jewish holiday. Bennett called on Netanyahu to reverse Galant’s sacking, suspend reform and engage in dialogue with opponents.

Security experts warn that enemies of Israel – above all Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and militant Palestinian organizations in the Gaza Strip – could seize the opportunity to attack the country, which has been weakened by the crisis.

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