- President appeals to Israelis to refrain from violence
- Israel marks Jewish fast, protests called for after sunset
- Netanyahu says he hopes for ‘middle ground’ outcome
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israel’s president urged both sides of a dispute over moves to overhaul the judiciary to refrain from violence, using the occasion of a Jewish fast on Thursday to appeal for reconciliation as protesters vowed more demonstrations.
The plans being pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government have spurred months of unprecedented protests, opened up a deep divide in Israeli society, and strained the loyalties of some army reservists.
Now in its seventh month, the crisis escalated on Monday after parliament passed the first of the changes, trimming Supreme Court powers to overrule government actions and raising fears for the integrity of Israel’s 75-year-old democracy. Demonstrations for and against the judicial overhaul were on hold for Tisha B’av, the fast day mourning the destruction of two ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem blamed by tradition on needless infighting.
“I appeal on everyone: Even when the pain peaks, we must preserve the boundaries of the dispute and refrain from violence and irreversible measures,” President Isaac Herzog, who plays a largely ceremonial role, said on Facebook.
Political watchdog groups have appealed to the Supreme Court to quash the new law enacted by Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, paving the way to a showdown among branches of government when it hears the arguments in September.
The legal tussle will begin as early as next Thursday, however, when the top court will hear an appeal against a coalition bill ratified in March that limited conditions for removing the prime minister from office. In a related showdown, the Supreme Court set a Sept. 7 hearing in a case brought by a political watchdog against the government over its failure to convene a panel that selects judges, which Netanyahu’s reforms aim to expand.
Despite a growing roster of unfilled court positions, Justice Minister Yariv Levin has declined to convene the committee in its unchanged format.
Protesters said they would be out in force again when the fast ended at sunset. They accuse Netanyahu of working to curb court independence even as he argues his innocence in a graft trial, and of unilaterally changing the justice system to the detriment of once-dominant secular liberals. Netanyahu says the reforms will balance government branches. He casts the protests as a bid to thwart his democratic mandate.
“There is a middle ground there and I hope we can achieve it,” he said in an interview with ABC News’ Good Morning America. “I’ll still try to proceed, if not in consensus with the opposition…, then at least on something that has broad acceptance in the public … broad national consensus. I’ll do my best to do it, and we’ll get over it,” he said.
Marking Tisha B’av, Israel’s far-right minister for police, Itamar Ben-Gvir, toured the Jerusalem mount that once housed the temples and which is now the site of al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest shrine. A past Ben-Gvir visit there set off outrage among Palestinians and the wider Muslim world. A Palestinian group aligned with the Islamist movement Hamas said it fired a rocket from the occupied West Bank into Israel in retaliation.
The Israeli army said security forces had located and dealt with improvised rocket remnants near the town of Silat al-Harithiya, in the northern West Bank near Jenin. Video posted on social media showed scores of other Jews visiting the Jerusalem compound under Israeli police guard.
Police said 16 of them were arrested “for violating visitation rules” – a reference to a ban on non-Muslim prayer there. Hamas condemned what it described as “large raids by settlers and ministers in the government of the Zionist enemy” at the compound. Jordan and Saudi Arabia also both condemned what they described as “the storming” of the compound.
Netanyahu’s plans have hit the economy by drawing warnings from credit agencies, triggering foreign investor flight. The ongoing controversy is increasing domestic political uncertainty and will lead to lower economic growth this year, S&P Global Ratings said in a report.
Protest leaders say growing numbers of military reservists have decided to stop serving to express their opposition.
The military has acknowledged an increase in requests to abstain from service, and said that damage would be done, gradually, to war-readiness if the no-shows proved protracted.