Why are there protests in Israel?

Thousands of people took to the streets of Israel to protest against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial reforms to the country’s judicial system on Sunday 26 March.

Chanting “the country is on fire”, demonstrators gathered outside Mr Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem to demand the draft legislation be withdrawn, only to be dispersed by police water cannons. Bonfires were meanwhile lit along Tel Aviv’s biggest motorway, forcing road closures and causing traffic mayhem.

On Monday, the protests continued, while Israel’s largest union, Histadrut, which represents 700,000 workers across a huge variety of professions, called for an immediate general strike. Universities closed their doors “until further notice” and flights from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport were grounded.

Finally conceding defeat – albeit temporarily – Mr Netanyahu gave a speech that evening acknowledging the divisions and announcing a month-long delay to the vote on the legislation until the next parliamentary session, saying he wanted to “avoid a civil war” and pledging further negotiation, a move that saw the strike averted.

Mr Netanyahu’s proposals, which have caused controversy since their unveiling on 4 January, would allow for a simple majority of 61 in the 120-seat Knesset to override almost any Supreme Court rulings and to allow politicians to have more say on the justices appointed to the bench. Protests over the legislation have been a constant feature of over the last two months.

The PM and his allies in what is the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, insist their plans are simply intended to restore the balance between the judiciary and executive and rein in what they regard as an interventionist court with liberal sympathies.

But critics warn the overhaul would concentrate too much power in the hands of the government. It is also note that this comes at a time when Mr Netanyahu himself happens to be on trial for corruption. He denies all the charges levelled against him.

His defence minister, Yoav Gallant, spoke out against the reforms on Saturday 25 March, prompting the PM to dismiss him on Sunday, a decision that ignited the latest blaze of angry demonstrations.

Before Mr Netanyahu backed down, Israel’s ceremonial president, Isaac Herzog, had added his voice to the calls to halt the reforms, saying in a statement: “We have seen very difficult scenes tonight. I appeal to the prime minister, the members of the government and members of the coalition: all the nation is surrounded by concerns. Security, economy, society, all under threat. The eyes of all the people of Israel are on you; the eyes of all Jews are on you; the eyes of the world are on you.

“For the sake of the unity of the people of Israel, for the sake of responsibility, I call on you to stop the legislative process immediately… This is not a moment of politics, this is a moment of leadership and responsibility.”

Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

The firing of the defence miniser, at a time of heightened security threats in the West Bank and elsewhere, appeared to be a final straw for many, including apparently the Histadrut. “Where are we leading our beloved Israel? To the abyss,” Arnon Bar-David, the group's head, said on Monday. “Today we are stopping everyone's descent toward the abyss.”

In security-obsessed Israel, Mr Gallant, a gruff retired general, was among the most respected members of the new Cabinet. By attacking the man responsible for national security, Mr Netanyahu may have crossed a red line – and unwittingly united this deeply polarised country by potentially compromising national security – one of the few areas of consensus.

Condemning the chaos, opposition leader Yair Lapid said: “We’ve never been closer to falling apart. Our national security is at risk, our economy is crumbling, our foreign relations are at their lowest point ever, we don’t know what to say to our children about their future in this country. We have been taken hostage by a bunch of extremists with no brakes and no boundaries.”

He also called for Mr Gallant’s reinstatement as defence minister, saying he had been sacked “for one reason only – he was telling the truth”.

Former PM Naftali Bennett, a former ally turned rival of Mr Netanyahu’s, told Israeli Army Radio in an interview on Monday morning that the county was “in a landslide of losing control” and observed: “We haven’t been in such a dangerous situation in 50 years.”

Israelis opposed to Mr Netanyahu's judicial overhaul block a highway in the early hours of Monday morning (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)
Israelis opposed to Mr Netanyahu's judicial overhaul block a highway in the early hours of Monday morning (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

Thousands of protesters also gathered outside the Knesset on Monday, where the PM survived an early no-confidence vote by 59 to 53.

Mr Netanyahu had reportedly spent the night beforehand in consultations. The architect of the reforms, justice minister Yariv Levin, a popular party member, was long a holdout, promising he would resign if the overhaul was suspended. But on Monday, he said he would respect the PM’s decision regarding suspending the legislation.

Still, Mr Netanyahu's hardline allies pressed him to continue on. “We must not halt the reform in the judicial system, and we must not give in to anarchy,” his national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, said.

The pause in the legislation should help to ease the tensions and buy Mr Netanyahu some time to find a compromise. But if he ultimately backs down, he runs the risk of angering his nationalist coalition partners — potentially threatening the stability of his government and risking the possibility of new elections.

Any new vote would once again likely focus again on Mr Netanyahu’s suitability to govern while he faces legal issues.

The US, a key Israeli ally, is watching the situation with “deep concern”, the White House said in a statement, urging Israel’s leaders to remember their “democratic values” and “find a compromise as soon as possible”, adding that American support for Israel “remains ironclad”.

Additonal reporting by agencies