By JOSEF FEDERMAN (Associated Press)
JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of protesters on Tuesday blocked highways and train stations and massed in central Tel Aviv during a day of countrywide demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul plan.
The protests, now in their seventh month, have taken on a sense of urgency in recent days as Netanyahu and his allies in parliament march ahead with the program. The first bill in the package – a measure that seeks to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight powers – could become law as soon as next week.
The unrest also cast a shadow over a visit to the White House by Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, who was invited to Washington to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary.
Herzog, a political centrist, has been involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to broker a compromise on the judicial overhaul, which has strained relations between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden.
In a meeting with Biden in the Oval Office, Herzog acknowledged that Israel was “going through a heated debate as a society.” But he said that debate shows that Israeli society is “strong and resilient.” He added that the country should seek an “amicable consensus.”
Biden, who has criticized the overhaul plan, said that the U.S. commitment to Israel was strong and the bond between the two countries was “unbreakable.”
Netanyahu and his allies say the overhaul is needed to rein in the powers of an unelected judiciary – particularly the Supreme Court – that they believe is overly interventionist in government decisions.
Their opponents, representing a wide cross section of Israeli society, say the plan is a power grab by Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies that will destroy the country’s fragile system of checks and balances. They also say the prime minister, who is on trial for corruption charges, and his allies are motivated by various grievances against the justice system.
Late Tuesday, protesters thronged outside the U.S. diplomatic offices, packed the central square of Tel Aviv and crippled the city’s main highway. Police on horseback galloped among the crowds, trying to clear them away.
Earlier, protesters gathered outside Israel’s stock exchange and military headquarters. Business leaders have repeatedly warned that a weakened legal system will deter foreign investors. Reservists in key military units, including fighter pilots and cyber warfare agents, have threatened to stop reporting for duty.
Demonstrators, many of them reservists, created human chains and blocked one of the entrances to Israel’s military headquarters in central Tel Aviv.
Protesters flooded train stations during afternoon rush hour. Many blew horns or held up blue and white Israeli flags.
Outside the Tel Aviv stock exchange, demonstrators ignited smoke bombs, drummed and chanted, and held up signs reading “save our startup nation.”
“We came to the stock exchange because this is the symbol of what this craziness of dictatorship is doing to Israel’s economy,” said protester Tzvia Bader. “We’ve become a third world country. There is no chance for our economy.”
A group of 161 reservists signed a letter to the commander of the Israeli air force saying they would not report for duty, and that the overhaul was “leading to dictatorship.” Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, warned that a refusal to report for duty “harms the army and the security of the state of Israel.”
The Israel Medical Association also announced that doctors would hold a two-hour strike in protest of the legislation on Wednesday. Emergency operations will proceed as normal, said Dr. Hagai Levine, a former head of Israel’s association of public health doctors.
Police said at least 45 people were arrested on public disturbance charges.
Netanyahu heads the most ultranationalist and religiously conservative government in Israel’s 75-year history.
His overhaul plan has exposed wide rifts in Israeli society – largely based on religious and economic differences.
Netanyahu’s allies are motivated by an array of grievances against the court system.
His ultra-Orthodox allies, for instance, fear the courts will strip away exemptions that allow young religious men to skip otherwise compulsory military service in order to pursue seminary studies. Others have spoken out against rights for LGBTQ+ people, while several Cabinet ministers are hard-line settler leaders who remain furious about Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and accuse the courts of siding with Palestinians.
The protesters, on the other hand, are largely members of Israel’s secular, middle class who believe the government is planning to clamp down on their way of life and on the country’s liberal traditions.
The coalition took office in December after winning the country’s fifth election in under four years. That election, like the previous four that ended in deadlock, were referendums on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial.
The weekly mass protests led Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul in March but he revived the plan last month after compromise talks with the political opposition collapsed.
The Israeli parliament gave initial approval last week to a key portion of the overhaul that would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down decisions it finds “unreasonable.” Netanyahu’s coalition spent Tuesday rejecting 26,000 objections to the bill filed by opposition lawmakers.
The law is meant to serve as a safeguard against corruption and improper appointments to key positions. But Netanyahu’s allies look at it as an infringement on the powers of elected officials.
The judges invoked the clause earlier this year when they said the appointment of a veteran politician to the Cabinet was unreasonable because of his past conviction for accepting bribes and plea bargain over tax offenses.
The bill has already received preliminary approval in parliament and is scheduled to receive formal approval next week unless Netanyahu decides to freeze the legislation.
Other proposed laws in the overhaul would grant lawmakers greater control over the appointment of judges and give parliament the power to overturn high court decisions and pass laws impervious to judicial review.
The protests continued as Herzog landed in Washington. He was to address Congress on Wednesday.
The visit has drawn attention to Biden’s refusal so far to invite Netanyahu to the White House. Such visits are standard protocol for Israeli prime ministers. But Biden has said he is unhappy with Netanyahu’s new government – both because of the overhaul and because of rapid expansion of West Bank settlements, built on occupied lands claimed by the Palestinians.
Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone on Monday and invited him to meet in the U.S. this fall. But he did not say whether the meeting would take place at the White House or a more neutral location, such as the United Nations General Assembly.
AP correspondents Julia Frankel in Jerusalem and Sam McNeil in Tel Aviv contributed reporting.