Hours after his coalition passed a divisive law making it harder to remove him from office, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel vowed on Thursday to proceed with an even more contentious judicial overhaul that has divided the country, spurring unrest in the military and mass protests in the streets.
In a defiant speech on prime-time television, Mr. Netanyahu promised to go ahead next week with plans to give the government greater control over appointments to the Supreme Court — emphatically squashing rumors that had swirled throughout the day that he was about to back down.
His speech capped a day in which thousands of protesters demonstrated across Israel against the plan, leading to confrontations with right-wing supporters of Mr. Netanyahu and clashes with police, who sprayed protesters with water cannons.
The address came just minutes after the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, met with Mr. Netanyahu to warn him about the effect the turmoil has had on the military, amid speculation that Mr. Gallant, himself, was about to speak out against the plan. The number of reservists reporting for duty this month has declined, the military confirmed on Wednesday, amid widespread concerns among reservists about the effects of the judiciary plan.
The proposal would give the government more control over judicial appointments, weaken the Supreme Court by severely restricting judicial review of legislation, and allow Parliament to override court decisions. The plan by the far-right government has become one of the most controversial domestic issues in Israel’s history, sparking weeks of angry protests by opponents who say that it would subvert the country’s democratic system.
But despite the growing criticism, Mr. Netanyahu stood by his plan on Thursday, declaring that it would restore balance between elected lawmakers and unelected judges. “It is not the end of democracy, it is the strengthening of democracy,” he said.
In particular, the plan to give the government greater control over the selection of Supreme Court justices “opens the court to far broader outlooks, sectors and publics, which until now were excluded from it for decades,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We don’t want a court that is controlled — we want a court that is balanced.”
Acknowledging the bitter conflict over the bill, he added: “I will do everything — everything — to calm the atmosphere and heal the rift in the nation.”
The opposition immediately dismissed the prime minister’s conciliatory tone, calling it a distraction from the main message of his speech, that he will not bow to criticism of the judiciary plan. They vowed to carry on protesting.
“Netanyahu refused to stop the legislation,” Yair Lapid, the centrist opposition leader, said in a statement on social media. “We will continue to fight in Parliament, in the streets, and in the court for a Jewish, democratic and strong Israel,” he added.
The drama in the streets and the halls of power on Thursday followed in the wake of a vote in Parliament earlier in the day to make it more difficult to declare prime ministers incapacitated and remove them from office.
Critics said the bill was aimed at protecting Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption.
“Like thieves in the night, the coalition has now passed an obscene and corrupt personal law,” Mr. Lapid said in a separate response to the law’s enactment.
Mr. Netanyahu denies seeking any changes to insulate himself from prosecution or punishment.
The new law, passed by a bare majority of 61 in the 120-seat Parliament, takes the power to remove a prime minister out of the hands of the attorney general and the courts, and grants it instead to Parliament. If a prime minister were unwilling to be removed from office, even temporarily, a vote of three-quarters of cabinet ministers and a supermajority of 80 lawmakers would be required.
In his speech, Mr. Netanyahu said the law had already had a swift and positive effect.
The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, had barred him from involvement in the plans for the court overhaul, citing a conflict of interest because Mr. Netanyahu is himself standing trial in the courts.
In his speech Thursday night, Mr. Netanyahu argued that stripping the attorney general of the power to remove him from office was necessary, so that he could override her guidance and dive into the negotiations and debate over the judicial overhaul, trying to build bridges with its opponents. Ms. Baharav-Miara had never indicated that she would try to remove him if he violated her instructions.
Until the law on removing a prime minister was changed on Thursday, “my hands were tied,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This evening, I am announcing to you, my friends, the citizens of Israel — no more. I am stepping into this event.”
The new law is the latest in a slew of contentious bills being advanced by Mr. Netanyahu’s three-month-old government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — and it is likely to be challenged in the Supreme Court. That could bring the government into direct confrontation with the courts, leading Israel closer to a constitutional crisis.
Supporters of the judicial overhaul bill say change is essential to correct an imbalance of power between the elected government and an overactive judiciary that has granted itself increased authority over the years. Opponents say the proposed changes would remove any restraint on government power and any protection for minorities, and lead to unchecked rule by the majority.
Concerns about the bill have gripped many parts of society — including military reservists, who play a key role in the daily operation of the armed forces, particularly the air force.
That unrest in the military formed the backdrop to Mr. Gallant’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday. The falling number of reservists reporting for duty has prompted fears about the military’s operational capacity at a time of heightened risk from militias in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank.
Mr. Gallant relayed these concerns to Mr. Netanyahu on Thursday night, amid growing rumors that the defense minister would make his own speech on the overhaul. In the end, the defense minister stayed silent publicly, but Mr. Netanyahu acknowledged his concerns.
“I met this evening with a series of ministers — among them the minister of defense — and heard his concerns about the ramification of the situation on our national security,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “I am taking this all into consideration,” he added.
Earlier in the day, demonstrators held what organizers called a day of “national paralysis,” involving a widening circle of Israelis from different walks of life. They blocked major highways around the country. The police in Tel Aviv turned a water cannon on protesters who had blocked a main road for hours.
A group of surgeons protested by occupying helipads around the coastal town of Caesarea, where Mr. Netanyahu and his family have a luxury private home. The protesters marched in a circle with flags surrounded by large banners reading, “Fighting for democracy” and “One must resist dictatorship,” according to drone footage distributed by the demonstration’s organizers.
Elsewhere, navy veterans blocked an entrance to the port in Ashdod with burning tires. Workers and retirees of Israel’s military industries protested outside a weapons manufacturer in northern Israel. Groups showed up outside lawmakers’ homes around the country and blocked access to a site near Ben-Gurion International Airport, where government ministers were scheduled to attend a ceremony.
Protesters also marched to Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb predominantly inhabited by ultra-Orthodox Jews, whose political leaders are part of Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition and have backed the judicial overhaul. Residents threw fireworks out of apartment buildings at the demonstrators, and there were no immediate reports of injuries.
In the nearby city of Petah Tikva, anti-government protesters also blocked streets outside an event for right-wing supporters of the overhaul, leading to angry confrontations.
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