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Protesters flood the streets of Israel after Netanyahu fires minister opposed to controversial reforms

Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023.
Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul plan set up bonfires and block a highway during a protest moments after the Israeli leader fired his defense minister, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 26, 2023.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday fired his defense minister after the high-ranking official called for a pause on a controversial judicial reform proposal that has fueled months of intense protests in the country and abroad. In response, floods of protesters took to the streets, starting bonfires on a Tel Aviv highway and knocking down a police barricade outside Netanyahu's home.

Demonstrations have swept across Israel for months over an effort by Netanyahu's right-wing government to overhaul the country’s judicial system. But Netanyahu's sudden ousting of the high-level minister who opposed the changes prompted the Biden administration to issue an unusual statement of concern.

"As the president recently discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu, democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the U.S.-Israel relationship," National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said. "Democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances, and fundamental changes to a democratic system should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support. We continue to strongly urge Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible."

The escalating tensions came after the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Saturday night that Netanyahu's judicial overhaul posed a security threat to Israel. Military reservists have refused to sign up for duty and many more have threatened to do the same. Israel's consul general in New York resigned in protest.

Still, Netanyahu’s far-right government was expected to advance some of the most controversial elements of its proposal.

The proposal could have wide-ranging implications for minority groups in the country, including Palestinians living in the West Bank and members of the LGBTQ community.

The blood-red ”Handmaid’s Tale” garb that for years showed up at left-leaning protests in the U.S. has become a fixture among protesters of the changes.

Here's what we know.

February 13, 2023: Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.
February 13, 2023: Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem.

What are the Israel protests about?

Israel's Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, in January unveiled a plan for far-reaching judicial reforms that could significantly weaken Israel's Supreme Court's powers.

Israeli law allows for the nation's Supreme Court to strike down measures passed in its parliament if they go against what are known as the country’s "Basic Laws" – the closest thing Israel has to a governing Constitution.

The legislative blitz would overhaul the country’s judicial system by allowing the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority and giving politicians a greater role in the appointment of Supreme Court judges.

"The laws all aim to assure parliamentary supremacy," said Yehudah Mirsky, a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University.

Protests continue: Israelis continue protests against judicial overhaul

A line of protesters supporting women's rights dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale television series and other Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 25, 2023.
A line of protesters supporting women's rights dressed as characters from The Handmaid's Tale television series and other Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, March 25, 2023.

When did the protests start?

The protests began after Levin announced the reforms in January and have grown to include a wide range of voices.

"(The protests) have grown steadily and become the most massive protest movement ever seen in Israel's history," Mirsky said. "Significantly, many military reservists are saying they may not be able to go on serving in the army under an illiberal government like the one they see taking shape."

He added that the protests aren't confined to urban centers or the political left; demonstrations have broken out in Jewish settlements and among right-leaning centrists.

Who would be most affected by the legislation?

Any groups unaligned with Israel's far-right coalition could be negatively affected by the legislation, according to Steven Zipperstein, a professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University.

"The catalog would be very, very long," he said.

Chief among those affected would be Palestinians living in the West Bank, he said; the changes could unleash "unlimited'' Jewish settlements in the area .

Settlements refer to Israeli communities operating in territories not under the nation’s sovereignty, like the West Bank, according to the Israel Policy Forum. Some 127 settlements in the West Bank have legal status under Israeli law, though much of the world considers settlements to be illegal under international law, IPF says.

The land is significant in Jewish and Biblical history, with part of Jerusalem – the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during King David’s reign – encapsulated in the area. Some view the settlements as restoration of Israel’s biblical land before the Messiah’s return, according to the Washington Institute’s Fikra Forum. The settlements are built on land claimed by Palestinians and by religious Jews as well.

Members of the LGBTQ community could also be affected. In recent years, a series of landmark rulings in Israel’s Supreme Court and parliament — from the right to parent children through surrogacy to the prohibition of conversion therapy and employment discrimination  — have strengthened rights for the LGBTQ community in the country. Israel has emerged as a safe haven for the LGBTQ community in the Middle East, and critics of the proposal say the legislation is a significant setback.

''It doesn’t matter if you are a woman, Arab, gay or a person with disabilities, the reforms will end up hurting all minorities,” said Liat Ortar, one of an estimated 100,000 protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem last month.

Israelis march in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2023 during a protest against controversial government plans to give lawmakers more control of the judicial system.
Israelis march in Tel Aviv on January 28, 2023 during a protest against controversial government plans to give lawmakers more control of the judicial system.

What do advocates of the changes say?

Netanyahu has argued that the judicial reforms are needed to strengthen Israel's democracy.

''It brings Israel in line with most of the democracies of the world, because Israel is right now an outlier," he said in a CNN interview in January.  "Israel has the most extreme judicial activism that's gone off the rails and we're trying to bring it back to where just about all the democracies are, both in the selection of judges and the balance between the diverse branches of government. It's gone haywire and I think that correcting or restoring Israeli democracy will make the democracy stronger."

How could the proposal affect Netanyahu?

The importance of Israel's Supreme Court was, until recently, recognized by Netanyahu himself. His "change in heart" is the byproduct of both a need to keep united his far-right coalition and the corruption charges he faces for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls.

"The corruption charges that are being leveled against him will essentially be annulled if the Supreme Court decisions are rendered null and void," Zipperstein said.

An Israeli protester holds a flag as he walks past a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration outside the Prime minister's residence in Jerusalem,  June 5, 2021. In Hebrew it reads: "You failed" and "Leave."
An Israeli protester holds a flag as he walks past a banner showing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a demonstration outside the Prime minister's residence in Jerusalem, June 5, 2021. In Hebrew it reads: "You failed" and "Leave."

What has the U.S. said about the proposal?

The proposed changes have raised concerns in the U.S., which is Israel’s largest financial supporter.

President Joe Biden has called on Israel to reach a “consensus” on the issue. U.S. ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, said he had told Netanyahu repeatedly to “pump the brakes” on the judicial overhaul.  And Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned about democracy during his last visit to Israel.

But most high-ranking U.S. officials have stopped short of condemning the legislation.

"Their circumspection is understandable - but they need to make clear, especially to Netanyahu and those closest to him, what this would mean for Israel's strategic relationship with (the U.S.), without which it cannot survive," Mirsky said, adding that the message needs to be bipartisan.

What's happens next?

Israel's Knesset advanced the "override cluse" bill last week, one of several in the reforms which will ensure a simple majority in parliament can override High Court rulings. The first reading passed with 61 votes for and 52 against, though it still needs to pass a second and third reading to become law.

"It's very difficult to imagine that there wouldn't be an incredibly strong reaction once this legislation is passed, if it is," Zipperstein said. "It's the kind of it's a kind of scenario that is impossible to imagine not happening, and all but impossible to imagine it all ending decently."

Contributing: Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel news: Netanyahu fires defense minister, sparking protests