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New Israel Protests as Netanyahu Rejects Judicial Reforms Compromise

Mass protests have taken place for an 11th week in Israel, as the government presses ahead with highly controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system.

There were clashes between mounted police and protesters who once again blocked a major highway in Tel Aviv.

On Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog released a set of compromise proposals and warned of a real possibility of bloodshed and “civil war”.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately rejected his plan.

The protests have continued to grow since Mr Netanyahu returned to power at the end of last year, leading the most right-wing, nationalist coalition in Israel’s history and promising to curb the powers of the judiciary.

The changes would give the government full control over the committee which appoints judges and would ultimately strip the Supreme Court of crucial powers to strike down legislation.

Mr Netanyahu says the reforms are designed to stop the courts over-reaching their powers and that they were voted for by the public at the last election.

Most legal scholars say they would effectively destroy the independence of the judiciary, while opposition figures describe them as an attempted “regime coup” by the prime minister and his coalition.

Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv, Israel, dressed up as "handmaids" (16 March 2023)
Image caption,Hundreds of women in Tel Aviv dressed up as “handmaids” from the novel The Handmaid’s Tale

Thousands of people took part in Thursday’s protests, which organisers said showed their “escalating resistance to dictatorship”.

Before dawn, artists painted a red line along a street in Jerusalem leading to the Supreme Court, saying it signified “the inseparable connection between an independent judicial system and freedom of expression”. Police said they arrested five people for vandalism.

Later in the morning, a crowd blocked the Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv, the city’s busiest, for a third week in a row. They were dispersed by mounted police, but they eventually managed to make their way back. At least five people were arrested after clashes erupted between police and protesters on the highway.

Hundreds of women also dressed up as “handmaids” from the novel The Handmaid’s Tale and marched along another main road to express their fear of Israel becoming a theocratic, patriarchal, totalitarian society.

Outside the British embassy in Tel Aviv, the BBC witnessed a driver attacking a demonstrator, leaving him with a bloodied face, and leading to violent scuffles.

Protesters also gathered outside other foreign missions in the city in an attempt to build international pressure on the Israeli government as the prime minister visited Berlin.

At a joint news conference, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he was closely following developments in Israel “with concern”.

Mr Netanyahu, who has shown few signs that he will back down, insisted Israel was not seeking to abolish democratic principles and that to suggest otherwise was “absurd and preposterous”.

On Wednesday night, the prime minister rejected a compromise proposal from President Herzog that would protect the independence of the courts.

Mr Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, said he had consulted people on all sides and warned that Israel was at a turning point.

“Whoever thinks real civil war, including bloodshed, is out of reach, has no idea. The abyss is within reach. A civil war is the red line. I will not let that happen.”

Before he flew to Germany, Mr Netanyahu tweeted: “Key sections of the outline he presented only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance to the Israeli authorities. This is the unfortunate truth.”

Opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid condemned what he called the coalition’s “brazen rejection” of the proposal and vowed to “continue to fight for a strong and democratic Israel”.

Source: BBC

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Yves Bergeron

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