Israeli minister says protests may affect judicial overhaul drive

JERUSALEM, July 19 (Reuters) – The Israeli government could rethink its polarising drive to overhaul the judiciary if there is a major escalation in protests, a cabinet minister said on Wednesday, in a signal of pliability as Washington tries to close ranks with its ally.

With one contested amendment that would limit Supreme Court powers slated for ratification next Sunday and Monday, protests have intensified and now include some air force reservists refusing to report for duty – a potential denting of Israel’s security as the Palestinian and Lebanese fronts simmer.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told U.S. President Joe Biden in phone call on Monday that the bill would pass as planned but that he would seek “broad consensus” for any further reforms, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said.

Netanyahu confidant Culture Minister Miki Zohar offered rare acknowledgement of the impact of six-month-old demonstrations, which surged in March after the premier fired Israel’s defence minister for openly voicing worry at the impact on the military.

Netanyahu backed down on Yoav Gallant’s ouster and suspended legislation to enable compromise talks with the opposition. He declared those fruitless last month, and revived the bill limiting Supreme Court powers to void some government decisions.

“If demonstrations reach a scale that was seen on ‘Gallant night’, we will understand that things have gone too far,” Zohar told Kan radio.

Whether that might happen remained unclear, however.

Proponents of the change pursued by Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition say the Supreme Court has become too interventionist and that the change will facilitate effective governance.

Opponents say it will weaken the Supreme Court, which – in a country that has no constitution and a one-chamber parliament that is dominated by the government – has a critical role in protecting civil rights and liberties.

That Netanyahu is on trial for corruption has further stoked criticism. He denies wrongdoing.

The demonstrations against Gallant’s firing mobilised as many as hundreds of thousands of people, organisers say. The protests have been more scattered with the onset of a scorching summer, featuring disruptions of highway traffic and face-offs with police at Ben Gurion Airport and rail stations.

Organisers believe the increasing involvement of reservists could be a game-changer. The conscript military relies on reserves for some combat missions and requires they train regularly.

With the biggest-circulation newspaper Israel Hayom carrying a front-page headline deeming the walk-out by 161 reserve air force staff officers a “red line”, other reservists said they would publicly join them on Wednesday by signing an end-of-service declaration outside the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch
Editing by Alexandra Hudson

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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