Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed to push ahead with legislation to dramatically reduce the influence of the judiciary in a move that has created deep rifts in Israeli society and that opponents say will undermine Israeli democracy.
He vowed to step up his personal involvement in the process despite a warning from the attorney general that such a move would contradict the conflict-of-interest ruling relating to Mr Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.
In a live televised address to the nation, Mr Netanyahu said he was attentive to the arguments of both sides and aware of the deep divisions the issue had created.
“Until now, my hands were bound, now I am getting involved,” he said. “The best solution is a broad agreement, however, unfortunately, the opposition leaders didn’t agree to sit down. I hope it will change in the coming days and we will work to bring a solution.”
However, he failed to meet the key opposition demand to freeze the legislative process while talks on a compromise take place. Instead Mr Netanyahu promised to anchor civil rights in law.
The leaders of the protest against the judicial overhaul described Mr Netanyahu’s comments as a “bizarre show by a dictator in the making” who, instead of stopping the legislation, was rushing to take over the supreme court. They vowed to step up their protests.
“All calls for negotiations when the legislation continues are illegitimate,” they stated.
Next week the key element of the judicial overhaul – granting the government control over choosing judges – is due to be voted on in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.
In advance of his statement, the prime minister summoned defence minister Yoav Gallant following speculation that the relatively moderate member of Mr Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party was planning to publicly call to halt the judicial overhaul legislation due to its ramifications for Israel’s national security.
Hundreds of reservists have refused to report for duty this week including in key air force, intelligence and cyber security units. Top generals warn that this number could swell to thousands in the coming weeks if the legislation advances.
Mr Netanyahu’s announcement came after another day of mass protests by opponents of the judicial overhaul closed roads and caused chaos across the country. Almost 100 protesters were arrested.
Some 15,000 people marched through the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv. Two ultra-Orthodox parties are part of Mr Netanyahu’s coalition and have given their full support to weakening the influence of the courts.
Earlier on Thursday after an all-night session, the Knesset passed the so-called incapacitation bill, which was rushed through parliament following rumours that Israel’s attorney general may declare Mr Netanyahu, who is in the middle of a corruption trial, unfit to serve due to a conflict of interest.
The law stipulates that a sitting prime minister can only be declared unfit and forced to step down if they or three-quarters of cabinet ministers declare them so on physical or psychological grounds.
Mr Netanyahu faces charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing and claims he is the victim of a left-wing witch hunt, supported by the judiciary and the media, to remove him from power.