Protesters embarked on a third day of disruption since the start of the crisis, with thousands of protesters blocking roads across the country, including the main road of the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv. Demonstrators in Jerusalem drew a large red and pink line across the city on streets leading to the country’s Supreme Court and a small flotilla of boats blocked the shipping lane off the coast of the northern city of Haifa.
“The elected government is doing a legislative blitz that aims to give absolute power to the executive. And absolute power for the executive without checks and balances is just a dictatorship. And this is what we are fighting against,” said Shlomit Tassa, a protester in Tel Aviv, waving an Israeli flag.
Police said they had made several arrests at locations across the country. A large demonstration was expected in Tel Aviv later in the day.
Last week, Netanyahu had to be airlifted to the country’s main international airport for an overseas state visit after protesters blocked the road with signs reading “Don’t come back!” Every Saturday night, tens of thousands across the country have attended weekly protests.
The overhaul, carried out by a prime minister on trial for corruption and Israel’s most right-wing government ever, has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises. It has sparked outrage from top officials, business leaders warning of the plan’s economic fallout, and from the military, the country’s most trusted institution, where reservists have pledged not to serve under what they see as imminent regime change.
The government says the plan will correct an imbalance between the judiciary and executive, which they say has given the courts too much leverage over the way Israel is governed. Critics say the overhaul overturns the country’s system of checks and balances, giving the prime minister and government too much power and stripping judicial oversight. They also say Netanyahu, who is on trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and taking bribes, could find an escape route from his legal woes through the overhaul.
Herzog had spent weeks meeting with actors on both sides of the divide to try and find an acceptable middle ground and his proposal seemed to stimulate both sides.
But Netanyahu quickly dismissed the plan as he boarded a plane to Germany, saying it did not resolve the question of divisional balance. A small group of Israelis in Berlin protested Netanyahu’s official visit there as German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, expressed concern about the overhaul.
Herzog said on Thursday that his proposal was intended to serve as a basis for further talks. “This is not the end of the discussion, but the beginning of it,” he said.
In Tel Aviv, five opposition party leaders held a joint press conference and called on Netanyahu to accept the president’s proposal. Knesset opposition leader Yair Lapid said that “we welcome the president’s proposal because in a civil war there will only be losers.”
Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, called on Netanyahu and his allies to “show leadership, look at reality and stop.”
The White House on Thursday reiterated its concerns about the proposed overhaul of the judiciary and urged Israeli leaders to find consensus.
“The genius of our democracy — and frankly Israel’s democracy — is that they are built on strong institutions, that they include checks and balances that promote an independent judiciary,” said the White House National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby. “We support President Herzog’s continued efforts to seek a solution consistent with those same democratic principles.”
But it was not clear to what extent the ruling coalition could deviate from its original plan, parts of which it has pledged to approve before parliament goes into recess early next month for the Passover holiday.
Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that consulted with the president about his plan, said the coalition was beginning to understand the toll its plan was taking on Israeli cohesion, on the country’s economy and on its own popularity. Still, he said the coalition had not yet reached the point where it would fall back.
“Maybe we will have to pay a higher audience price and reach a lower point until this becomes the basis for reaching a compromise,” he said of the president’s plan.
The embattled Netanyahu, once a staunch supporter of the independence of the courts, returned to power late last year after more than a year as opposition leader amid a political crisis over his fitness to rule while on trial, leading Israelis to five went to the polls in less than four years.
He forged a coalition with ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies who had long sought to curb the power of the judiciary. Parties that support settlements in the West Bank see the court as an obstacle to their expansionist ambitions, while religious factions are driven to limit the court’s ability to rule on matters they fear may disrupt their way of life.
But critics say there are also personal grievances involved in the effort. Aside from Netanyahu’s allegations, which he says are unrelated to the overhaul, a key Netanyahu ally was disqualified by the Supreme Court from serving as cabinet minister due to previous convictions for tax violations. Under the revision, they each have laws that could protect their positions from the intervention of the courts.
Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.