- Thousands join the protests as the Justice Act moves forward
- Tens of thousands demonstrate at Israel’s main airport
- Police deploy water cannons and the United States supports the right to protest
TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters blocked Israel’s main airport and highways on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right coalition pressed ahead with a justice bill that opened the country’s biggest divisions in decades.
A day after parliament passed a key element of the bill, which aims to limit the power of the Supreme Court, crowds of flag-waving protesters halted morning traffic at major intersections and on highways across the country. Some lay on the streets while others threw flares.
Police on horseback fanned out among hundreds of demonstrators in Tel Aviv, Israel’s business hub. At the entrance to Jerusalem, officers used water cannons to disperse some protesters and forcibly dragged away others. Police said at least 66 people were arrested.
About 1,000 police were deployed at Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, as thousands of demonstrators turned the area in front of the main entrance into a sea of blue and white Israeli flags. An airport spokesman said flights were not affected despite the large crowds.
The United States, which has called for protecting the independence of the judiciary and urged Netanyahu to try to build consensus on the proposals, said Israel should respect the right to peaceful protest.
Netanyahu’s national-religious coalition campaign to change the justice system has led to unprecedented protests, raised concern about Israel’s democratic health among Western allies, and hurt the economy.
“They are trying to destroy our judicial system, by creating and enforcing laws that would destroy democracy,” said Ariel Dubinsky, who joined one of the protests in Tel Aviv.
The proposals also spooked investors and helped push the shekel down 8% since January.
The new bill won the first of three votes needed to be turned into law late Monday in the face of cries of “shame” from opposition lawmakers.
If passed as is, it would limit the Supreme Court’s power to overturn decisions by government, ministers, and elected officials by ruling them unreasonable.
Checks and balances
The government and its supporters say reform is needed to rein in meddling judges, many of them from the left, who they say have overstepped the political sphere. They say the change will help effective governance by reducing court interference, arguing that judges have other legal means of exercising oversight.
For critics, who include most of the country’s tech and business establishments, Supreme Court oversight that helps prevent corruption, abuse of power and the weakening of power would remove a vital part of Israel’s democratic checks and balances. Groups of military reservists, including combat pilots and members of special forces special forces units, also joined the protests.
Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party said the bill would be watered down before it goes to a final vote which they hope will conclude before the Knesset’s summer recess on July 30.
But Simcha Rothman, head of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that is drafting the bill, told Army Radio: “I am saying this bluntly: I am not convinced that any significant changes are expected.”
Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, halted the legal campaign for compromise talks with the opposition, but negotiations collapsed in June.
Additional reporting by Mayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Stephen Scheer and Matt Spetalnick in Washington. Writing by Mayann Lubell and James McKenzie; Editing by Louise Heavens, William McLean and Angus McSwan
Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
“Travel specialist. Typical social media scholar. Friend of animals everywhere. Freelance zombie ninja. Twitter buff.”