Israel's president calls to scrap judicial overhaul as protests mount


JERUSALEM, March 9 (Reuters) - Israel's president urged the government to abandon attempts to push through bitterly contested plans to overhaul the judiciary and seek a model with broad support as tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets on Thursday.

The drive by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right government to enact sweeping changes to Israel's courts has sparked domestic uproar and alarm among the country's Western allies. If the proposal passed, it would mean greater government sway in selecting judges and limit the power of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation.

After weeks of demonstrations across the country that have exposed deep divisions in Israeli society, President Isaac Herzog, who has been mediating between the sides, warned in a televised prime time address of a "disaster".

He said Israel had reached a "point of no return" and called on the coalition government to rethink the proposed legislation, which is strongly backed by nationalist and religious parties.

"It is wrong, it is harsh, it undermines our democratic foundations. And therefore it must be replaced with another, agreed upon outline immediately," Herzog said.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left on a visit to Rome, he had to elude flag-waving Israelis who clogged the access routes to Ben Gurion Airport with motor convoys.

Before leaving, he managed to greet visiting Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, who later underlined Washington's concern over the proposals by saying that both U.S. and Israeli democracy were built on an independent judiciary.

The interventions by Herzog and Austin underlined the unusual depth of concern over the proposals, which Netanyahu - on trial on graft charges he denies - says are needed to rein in what it calls activist judges who have interfered in political decision making.

Critics, who range from the business elite to former military officers as well as opposition parties, say they would destroy the system of checks and balances needed in a democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.


Opinion polls have found that most Israelis want the proposals shelved or amended to satisfy a national consensus. Tens of thousands have demonstrated and some military reservists have also refused to show up for training exercises.

The sense of broader crisis was further underlined when a Palestinian gunman from the Islamist movement Hamas opened fire on a main street in central Tel Aviv, wounding three people.

Austin postponed and shortened his Israel leg of a regional tour. Rather than travel to Israel's Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv, around which demonstrators were facing off with police, his meetings were relocated to an aerospace compound near Ben Gurion.

At a news conference later with his Israeli counterpart, Austin evoked comments by President Joe Biden, who has called for reaching a consensus on the issue in Israel.

"The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary," he said.

Israeli police minister Itamar Ben-Gvir told reporters at the airport, where he was coordinating the response to the demonstrations, that "nobody said don't protest."

"But it's not okay, it's not right, it's not proper to ruin the lives of 70,000 people," he said.

He appeared to be referring to people stuck in traffic as well as those travelling through Ben Gurion, whose spokesperson said the expected passenger volume for Thursday was 65,000.

As Thursday's protest came to an end it was announced that the commander of police in Tel Aviv was being reassigned. Ben-Gvir said the transfer had been planned in advanced and was not a dismissal.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean and Grant McCool

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