Israel’s ceremonial president has urged an immediate halt to the country’s planned judicial overhaul after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly announced proposal prompted tens of thousands of people to gather in the streets in protest.
Isaac Herzog’s plea comes hours after Netanyahu fired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who condemned the plan which includes government reforms. Universities across the country have shut their doors in protest and trade unions are also expected to call for a general strike.
The plea also comes as reservists of Israel's military joined mass protests outside Netanyahu’s home in Tel Aviv on Sunday, raising concerns the protests could potentially escalate into violence, officials said.
According to Dan Arbell, a scholar-in-residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, Israeli Defense Forces reservists mostly remain out of political protests and their presence adds significance to the tens of thousands that have since gathered.
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The reservists are mainly composed of former combat pilots, special forces members, and military intelligence officers, who will not answer calls for military service should the Netanyahu-led Knesset carry through with its planned overhaul, they have said.
The controversial plan includes passing legislation that would increase the legislative branch's control over the lawmaking process, among other instrumental initiatives.
"The entire nation is rapt with deep worry. Our security, economy, society — all are under threat," President Herzog said. "Wake up now!"
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Former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of Netanyahu, highlighted the severity of the ongoing crisis during an interview with Israeli Army Radio, where he said Israel was "in a landslide of losing control."
"We haven't been in such a dangerous situation in 50 years," Bennett said.
First, the plan would give Knesset — and not the courts — final control over new legislation as it would create an "override clause" that allows a simple majority of the parliament to re-enact any law struck down by the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu has publicly argued that unelected Supreme Court justices wield too much power.
"We must all stand up strongly against refusals," Netanyahu tweeted Sunday.
His Likud party similarly argued the judicial branch was too strong and said they favor restoring "balance… for selecting judges and abolishing the undemocratic situation in which the judges appoint themselves."
"This method in which the representatives of the public choose judges is used in almost all democracies in the world," the political party said. "The claim that the abolition of the mechanism by which the judges appoint themselves is the 'end of democracy' lacks foundation."
Gallant, who is a member of Netanyahu's ruling Likud party, was critical of the proposed change and said in a televised speech on Saturday that it is "a clear, immediate and tangible danger to the security of the state."
"As Minister of Defense of the State of Israel, I emphasize that the growing rift in our society penetrates the IDF and security agencies," Gallant said per the report. "I will not allow this. But now, I declare loudly and publicly, for the sake of Israel's security, for the sake of our sons and daughters – the legislative process should be stopped."
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The legislation also changes the process for adding constitutional amendments and judicial appointments.
The courts are the only check to the executive and legislative branches, which are jointly controlled by the ruling coalition. According to Arbell, the new plan weakens the courts and increases the power of the coalition in charge, which is currently Netanyahu’s Likud party.
The party explained in a tweet on Monday, March 20: "The law does not allow the coalition or the opposition to take over the court, but guarantees that there will be diversity in the composition of the judges."
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut gave a public speech on Jan. 12, when she warned the proposed reforms are "meant to be a mortal wound to the independence of the judiciary and to turn it into a silent institution," Arbell reported.
Netanyahu reportedly spent Sunday evening consulting with advisors and is set to address the protests later Monday.
In addition to changing the relationship between the legislative and judicial branches of government, Netanyahu's intended government reforms include accelerating the privatization of the country’s media — allowing those in power to favor friendly outlets while also being able to brand less-than-friendly outlets as hostile, Arbell reported.
Another reform allows businesses the option to exclude certain customers or services based on owners’ or employees’ religious convictions.
The prime minister contends the legislation, which critics argue is potentially discriminatory, will protect religious practices.
"We will not advance any law against the Christian community," Netanyahu said on Twitter last week.
Netanyahu, Israel's longest-serving leader, and the Lukid party regained control of the government on Dec. 29, 2022.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.