Israeli parliament in uproar over Netanyahu justice plans as thousands protest
- Heavily contested judicial changes in parliament
- Many thousands protest against plans they say threaten democracy
- Netanyahu says changes needed to restore balance
- President warns of "constitutional collapse"
JERUSALEM, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Israeli lawmakers traded insults on Monday over government plans to overhaul the judiciary while tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside parliament, as the president warned the country was on the brink of "constitutional collapse".
The plans, which would give right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greater control of appointments to the bench and weaken the Supreme Court's ability to strike down legislation or rule against the executive, have triggered angry protests across Israel for weeks.
On Monday, the Knesset Constitution Committee voted to send the first chapter of the plan to the plenum for a first reading, after a rowdy start to the meeting in which several lawmakers were thrown out forcibly, to shouts of "shame, shame".
As lawmakers traded calls of "fascist" and "traitor", sang protest folk songs and even cried inside the Knesset, tens of thousands of protesters massed outside.
Netanyahu, currently on trial on corruption charges which he denies, says the changes are needed to restore balance in the system and curb activist judges who have overreached their powers to interfere in the political sphere.
"I call on the heads of the opposition: Stop it. Stop deliberately dragging the country into anarchy," he said in a statement. "Most Israeli citizens do not want anarchy. They want a substantive discourse and in the end they want unity."
But the plans have exposed deep splits within Israeli society, pitting the economic establishment and more liberal sections of the country against supporters of Netanyahu and his right-wing religious and nationalist coalition allies.
"I'm protesting for the country my father fought for, my brother fought for, my uncle died for," said protester Hila Morzehavi. "They fought for Israel to be a democracy, not a fascist's country."
Critics say the plans risk destroying democratic checks and balances and isolating Israel internationally by weakening the courts, handing unbridled power to the executive and endangering human rights and civil liberties.
Israel's public broadcaster Kan published a poll on Sunday which showed 28% of Israelis support the judicial overhaul as it is and 50% oppose it.
On Sunday evening, in a rare intervention, President Isaac Herzog made a televised plea for consensus, saying that the bitterness had left Israel on the brink of "constitutional and social collapse" and calling for all sides to come together.
The standoff comes at a time of heightened anxiety over security in Israel after two deadly attacks by Palestinians in recent weeks that killed 10 people and piled pressure on Netanyahu's hardline government allies to react.
Netanyahu's Likud party and its allies have denounced opponents of the proposals as embittered leftists who refuse to accept the results of last year's election that brought one of the most right-wing governments in Israel's history to power.
But as well as the parliamentary opposition, warnings have come from Israel's banks and tech sector that the changes risked undermining the civil institutions that underpin Israel's economic prosperity.
U.S. President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to build consensus before pushing through far-reaching changes, saying in comments published by the New York Times on Sunday that an independent judiciary was one of the foundations of U.S. and Israeli democracy.
Rothman, one of the driving forces behind the proposals, said he welcomed Herzog's calls but the opposition had to compromise.
"I urge, again, everyone who wants to negotiate with good faith to come to the president and do it," he told Reuters.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.