The unrest also cast a shadow over a visit to the White House by Israel’s top president Isaac Herzog, who was invited to Washington to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary.
Herzog, a political centrist, has been involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to broker a compromise on the judicial review, which has strained relations between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden.
In a meeting with Biden in the Oval Office, Herzog acknowledged that Israel was « going through a heated debate as a society. » But he said the debate demonstrates that Israeli society is « strong and resilient. » He added that the country should seek a « friendly consensus ».
Biden, who criticized the overhaul plan, said the US commitment to Israel was strong and the bond between the two countries was « unbreakable ».
Netanyahu and his allies say the review is needed to curb the powers of an unelected judiciary (particularly the Supreme Court) which they believe are overly interventionist in government decisions.
Their opponents, who represent a broad cross-section of Israeli society, say the plan is a power grab by Netanyahu and his ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies that will destroy the country’s fragile system of checks and balances. They also say the prime minister, who is on trial for corruption, and his allies are motivated by various grievances against the justice system.
On Tuesday, protesters thronged outside US diplomatic offices, packed Tel Aviv’s central square and paralyzed the city’s main highway. Mounted police galloped through the crowd, trying to drive it off.
Earlier, protesters had gathered in front of Israel’s stock exchange and military headquarters. Business leaders have repeatedly warned that a weakened legal system will discourage foreign investors. Reservists from major military units, including fighter pilots and cyber warfare operatives, have threatened to stop reporting for duty.
Protesters, many of them reservists, created human chains and blocked one of the entrances to the Israeli military headquarters in central Tel Aviv.
Protesters flooded train stations during the afternoon rush hour. Many honked their horns or raised blue-and-white Israeli flags.
Outside the Tel Aviv stock exchange, protesters lit smoke bombs, beat drums and sang and held up signs reading « save our startup nation ».
“We came to the stock market because this is symbolic of what this madness of dictatorship is doing to the Israeli economy,” said protester Tzvia Bader. “We have become a third world country. There is no chance for our economy. »
A group of 161 reservists signed a letter to the Israeli air force commander saying they would not report for duty and that the overhaul was « leading to dictatorship ». Israeli military chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi warned that refusal to report for duty « damages the army and the security of the state of Israel ».
The Israel Medical Association also announced on Wednesday that doctors would call a two-hour strike to protest the legislation. Emergency operations will proceed as normal, said Dr. Hagai Levine, former head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
Police said at least 45 people had been arrested on public nuisance charges.
Netanyahu heads the most ultranationalist and religiously conservative government in Israel’s 75-year history.
His overhaul plan exposed wide rifts in Israeli society, largely based on religious and economic differences.
Netanyahu’s allies are motivated by a series of grievances against the justice system.
His ultra-Orthodox allies, for example, fear that the courts will lift exemptions that allow young clerics to skip the otherwise mandatory military service to continue their seminary studies. Others have spoken out against the rights of LGBTQ+ people, while several government ministers are hardline settler leaders who remain furious over Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and accuse the courts of siding with the Palestinians.
The protesters, on the other hand, are largely members of Israel’s secular middle class who believe the government is planning to crack down on their way of life and the country’s liberal traditions.
The coalition took office in December after winning the country’s fifth election in less than four years. Those elections, like the previous four which ended in deadlock, were referendums on Netanyahu’s suitability to serve as prime minister while he was on trial.
Weekly mass protests led Netanyahu to suspend the review in March, but last month he revived the plan after compromise talks with the political opposition failed.
Israel’s parliament last week gave initial approval to a key part of the overhaul that would prevent the Supreme Court from overturning decisions it deems « unreasonable ». Netanyahu’s coalition spent Tuesday rejecting 26,000 objections to the bill introduced by opposition lawmakers.
The law is intended to act as a safeguard against corruption and improper appointments to key positions. But Netanyahu’s allies see it as a violation of the powers of elected officials.
Judges invoked the clause earlier this year when they said the appointment of a veteran politician to Cabinet was unreasonable due to his previous conviction for accepting bribes and plea deals for tax crimes.