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Mass protests in Israel as Knesset begins controversial judicial overhaul

Insults were heralded, shouts of "shame," and tables thrown inside the Knesset, as tens of thousands of Israelis protested outside the chamber against unpopular judicial reforms by the Netanyahu government.
Israelis protest

A powerful Knesset committee passed two main components of the Benjamin Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial overhaul for a first reading on Monday, as tens of thousand of Israelis gathered in Jerusalem to protest the move that could see the Supreme Court undermined.

The Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice committee moved two bills up the chamber in a charged session where members of the divided committee heralded insults at each other. Nine lawmakers voted yes and seven voted no.  Shouts of "shame" were heard in the chamber against what's seen as an attempt by the Netanyahu far-right government to undermine Israel's judiciary. 

The first part is an amendment to the Basic Law on the judiciary, preventing the Supreme Court from striking down legislation that are deemed unconstitutional by Israeli courts. The second is changes to the composition of the committees that select judges that will offer the government the upper hand.

The debate was chaotic with a Knesset member jumping on the table and chanting, cursing and insults traded between members of the coalition and the opposition.

Now that the bills have been approved by the committee, they must pass three Knesset readings, set to begin this week.

President Isaac Herzog made an unusual televised appearance Sunday evening, pleading with the sides to open negotiations and find a compromise over the judicial reform. The president laid out five principles that could serve as basis for negotiations and said he was at the disposal of the parties to facilitate talks.

The Israeli president warned of a dangerous growing rift within the Israeli people that risks destroying the state's unique social fabric. "This is not a political dispute. We are on the verge of a constitutional and social collapse," warned Herzog. He asked that the Monday debate by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee be postponed until a dialogue could be launched. Some coalition members said they would agree to enter a dialogue, but no efforts were made to delay the committee vote.

Between 60,000 and 100,000 Israelis are demonstrating in Jerusalem outside the Knesset against the reforms. Trains were packed Monday morning with demonstrators heading to Jerusalem. Six additional trains were added to the regular rail service to accommodate the many people heading for the rally. Other demonstrations are taking place in Tel Aviv, Herzliya and near Ben Gurion Airport.

Dozens of tech companies have announced they will permit their workers to demonstrate on Monday. The venture capital firm TLV Partners Fund and the Lemonade Fund, which supports breast cancer care, said they would arrange buses for workers wishing to travel to Jerusalem to participate in the main rally. Some schoolmasters have said they will allow teachers and students to demonstrate.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed the tens of thousands gathered outside the Knesset, emphasizing that Israelis will not stay silent in the face of the changes pushed by the Netanyahu government. “We will not stay quiet as they destroy everything that is precious and sacred to us,” said Lapid, adding, “If they continue this craziness, don’t talk to us about unity. There’s no unity when only one side makes the rules.”

Monday’s demonstrations follow mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv and in other places for the past five Saturday nights. Each rally saw tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrating.

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