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As Israel erupts in protest, Netanyahu urges agitators to behave responsibly

By Harinder Mishra
Last updated on: March 27, 2023 21:56 IST
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Ahead of a much-anticipated announcement to freeze his plan for a judicial overhaul, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday urged protesters "to behave responsibly and refrain from violence" as Israelis from all over the country started descending into Jerusalem and workers from a range of sectors joined a protest movement against the government's contentious plan.

IMAGE: Women dressed as handmaidens from The Handmaid's Tale attend a demonstration after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defence minister and his nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Netanyahu's appeal came hours after President Isaac Herzog on Monday appealed to him to immediately halt his controversial judicial overhaul, warning that the move has put the country's security, economy and society under threat.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his first public statement since widespread demonstrations erupted in reaction to his sacking of the defence minister, has urged protesters, from the left and right, "to behave responsibly and refrain from violence."

 

As Israelis from all over the country started descending into Jerusalem, Netanyahu in a tweet appeared to address fears of violent clashes this evening between opponents and supporters of the government's judicial overhaul plan.

"All of us are brothers and sisters," Netanyahu stressed in his tweet.

Unverified reports in the local media, quoting sources in Netanyahu's Likud party, have said that the prime minister is going to freeze the judicial blitz that has completely paralysed the nation with widespread strikes across all walks of life.

The far-right coalition member party Otzma Yehudit said Prime Minister Netanyahu will delay the process for discussions on the planned judicial overhaul until next month.

In a statement on Monday, the party said legislation would be pushed to the next session of parliament, which starts in early May, to "pass the reform through dialogue".

IMAGE: Fire burns as people attend a demonstration after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defence minister, Tel Aviv, Israel, March 27, 2023. Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters

President Herzog's appeal to Netanyahu came after the prime minister sacked Defence Minister Yoav Gallant for opposing his judicial reforms, sparking widespread street protests. The president also called on the government to put aside political considerations for the sake of the nation.

"Last night we witnessed very difficult scenes. I appeal to the prime minister, members of the government, and members of the coalition: there are harsh and painful feelings. The entire nation is rapt with deep worry," Herzog said.

"Our security, economy, society -- all are under threat. The whole people of Israel are looking at you. The whole Jewish People are looking at you. The whole world is looking at you," the ceremonial president in a statement.

"For the sake of the unity of the People of Israel, for the sake of the necessary responsibility, I call on you to halt the legislative process immediately," he emphasised.

He urged all the leaders in power to place the country's citizens above all else.

"I appeal to the leaders of all Knesset factions, coalition and opposition alike, to place this country's citizens above all else and to act with courage and responsibility without further delay. Wake up now! This is not a political moment; this is a moment for leadership and responsibility," the president asserted.

Tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Israel on Sunday night after Netanyahu fired Defence Minister Gallant after he said on Saturday that the judicial overhaul "poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the State".

Irked by the televised speech given by Gallant, the prime minister's office in a terse statement Sunday evening said, "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has decided, this evening (Sunday, 26 March 2023), to dismiss Defence Minister Yoav Gallant".

The announcement led to a spontaneous and unprecedented outburst of anger against the country's longest-serving prime minister.

An unconfirmed Channel 12 report said that 600,000-700,000 Israelis were demonstrating late on Sunday across the country, with protests reported from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south.

Protesters in Tel Aviv blocked a main highway and lit large bonfires, while police scuffled with protesters who gathered outside Netanyahu's private home in Jerusalem.

The unrest sparked by Justice Minister Yariv Levin's proposals to shake up the judiciary by severely curbing the High Court of Justice's judicial review powers and the government's efforts to cement political control over the appointment of judges has met with resistance not only in the streets of the country but also abroad with thousands of Jewish diaspora members protesting during Netanyahu's visits to Italy, Germany and the UK.

IMAGE: Protesters hold flags during a demonstration after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the defence minister, Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. Photograph: Ammar Awad/Reuters

The protests have alarmed business leaders, former security chiefs and drawn concern from Israel's close allies, including the United States.

The country has also seen economic disruption with talk of a "flight of capital" and hi-tech leaders and firms.

Arnon Bar-David, the head of Israel's largest labour federation Histadrut, Monday announced a "historic" labour strike in an attempt to "stop the madness" of the government's controversial judicial overhaul.

"We are all worried about Israel's fate,” Bar-David said. ”Together we say, enough! We have lost our way -- this is not about left or right. We can no longer polarise the nation,” the union head was quoted as saying in The Times of Israel newspaper.

Israel's main airport Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Monday announced an immediate halt to all departing flights, minutes after the head of the Histadrut announced the ”historic” labour strike.

The Histadrut also instructed all government employees to go on strike, including in all of Israel's diplomatic missions around the world, the paper reported.

Citing a spokesperson for Israel's embassy in the United States, it confirmed that the mission has shut down until further notice.

The National Student and Youth Council, representing the high school and middle school students, declared a nationwide strike to start on Monday morning.

The council has called for "halting the [overhaul] legislation and starting negotiations immediately”.

Two protesters entered the Knesset building and shouted at Education Minister Yoav Kisch that he should resign. They were quickly bundled away by security guards.

As protests intensified accompanied by an unforeseen display of anger, some Likud ministers relented, beginning to show their willingness to compromise.

Culture Minister Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu confidant, said the party would support him if he decided to pause the judicial overhaul.

Protest organisers, mostly common people with no declared political affiliation, continued to push for further demonstrations on Monday.

Political analysts see the development as a "grassroots movement" beyond the control of any political formation. The opposition though has been fully supportive and participating in the protests.

Legislation, which many argue is aimed at establishing executive supremacy over the judiciary, making it subservient to the government, is slated to come for the final readings this week in the Knesset.

Seen at the receiving end of international ire, including a rebuke from US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu has looked weak and perplexed but also hesitant to step back from the proposed "reforms" because of fear of backlash within his ruling Likud party. 

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Harinder Mishra in Jerusalem
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