Netanyahu defiant as vote to limit Israel courts looms amid rising protests

JERUSALEM — Israel braced for a resurgence of domestic turmoil Friday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brushed aside objections to his government’s looming vote to limit the Supreme Court’s power, dashing hopes he would find a last-minute way to defuse an unprecedented crisis of governance.

Demonstrators rushed back into the streets late Thursday following a defiant televised address in which Netanyahu blasted opponents for their “absurd” scare tactics and blamed some protesters for trying to bring down his governing coalition.

Critics had hoped Netanyahu — who is caught between hard-line ministers and a growing chorus of warnings from legal scholars and international allies — would either pause the legislation or water down its scope. The opposition and foreign leaders, including President Biden, have beseeched the prime minister to pause the legislation.

Meet the Israeli protesters resisting Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

But as unrest swelled across the country, members of the ruling coalition appeared to hold firm in support of the bill that would curtail the court’s power of judicial review over government actions and appoint. The parliament was scheduled to take up the bill again Sunday, with final passage predicted to come Monday.

The prime minister, speaking from his office, dismissed criticisms that the measure would erode democracy or tilt the balance of power in Israel, a country without a written constitution.

“The [legislation] is going to strengthen democracy and not endanger it,” Netanyahu said, rejecting the steady drumbeat of warnings from legal scholars as “an attempt to frighten you.”

The real threat to democracy, he said, was the attempt by demonstrators to thwart the will of voters who gave Netanyahu’s coalition of religious and nationalist parties — the most right-wing in Israel’s history — a four-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament last November.

Demonstrators were on the street immediately after Netanyahu’s address. At least 15 were arrested as protesters blocked roads and set fires. Protesters filled intersections, sometimes jostling with mounted police, and chanted in front of government ministers’ homes.

Organizers promised massive demonstrations Saturday and Sunday, the day parliamentarians will begin final votes on the legislature and pledged to paralyze the country should the measure pass.

The unprecedented public opposition from members of Israel Defense Forces, perhaps the country’s most revered institution, has been key to slowing the government’s judicial overhaul push.

In March, amid warning from senior commanders that military readiness was potentially at risk after some reservists refused to be called up, Netanyahu pulled the package of measures and agreed to talks with opposition lawmakers brokered by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

Those talks broke down last month and far-right lawmakers resurrected one piece of the package — a bill that will limit the court’s ability to override cabinet decisions or appointments that it deems “unreasonable.”

Without government power bounded by a formal constitution, the reasonableness standard has been one of the few ways jurists exercise judicial review. Curtailing it, critics say, would risk setting Israel on a path to autocracy.

“We do not have any other tools that really limit absolute political power,” said Suzi Navot, a constitutional law expert and vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “And this government wants immunity from this restriction.”

If the measure passes, Netanyahu is expected to put a longtime ally — ultra-Orthodox party leader Aryeh Deri — at the head of the health, interior and finance ministries. The court earlier this year rejected Deri’s appointment as “unreasonable in the extreme” because he has been convicted three times over the years for bribery, fraud and tax evasion.

Cabinet hard-liners have also indicated that reining in the court would allow them to fire Israel’s independent attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, whom they accuse of failing to prosecute protesters that have disrupted the country for months.

“They want unlimited power to appoint whomever and fire whomever they want,” Navot said.

The question of government power is at the center of the widening split in Israel. The country’s ascendant right wing has chafed under court challenges to the military exemption of religious students, settlement expansion and other conservative priorities. Secular Israelis and tech professionals view the courts as a bulwark against theocracy and nationalism.

Those divisions have roared back in recent days, as the government’s determination to act has become clear. More than 150 Air Force and 300 medical reservists pledged not to be called up for duty if the measure passes. Labor and business leaders have beseeched Netanyahu to hit the brakes, so far to no avail.

Herzog, who has warned that the ugly divisions threatened a “civil war,” headed home from Washington this week bearing both familiar pledges of support for Israel and worries that the current legislation will not be the end of the government’s judicial overhaul.

Biden, after a phone call with Netanyahu on Monday, repeated his fears that the change was being forced through without sufficient national consensus in an interview with the New York Times.

But the prime minister has limited room to maneuver between hard-line members of his coalition, who have the power to bring down his government if they are denied their long-sought judicial reform, on one hand and domestic upheaval and international warnings on the other.

The bind is a result of Netanyahu’s reliance on parties from the far-right religious parties to build his coalition, considered the most conservative in Israel’s history, according to Mordechai Kremnitzer, a professor emeritus of law at Hebrew University. Netanyahu’s reputation as a pragmatic operator has foundered because of his relations with extremists, he said.

“For the first time, he has met people in his coalition who are not really politicians ready to compromise,” Kremnitzer said. “These are people who think they are sent by God to accomplish a mission and that the Supreme Court is an obstacle to that mission. I don’t see a way out for him.”

Organizers have promised that passing the measure Monday would lead to the kind of mass demonstrations, strikes and turmoil that brought Israel to a standstill in spring.

Opponents say they would immediately petition the Supreme Court to block the attempt to limit its own power, raising the possibility of an unprecedent constitutional crisis.

“We have to ask the court to declare this an unconstitutional constitutional amendment, something fundamentally contrary to our Basic Law,” said Navot. “This has never been done before.”

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