TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli protesters blocked highways and gathered outside Tel Aviv’s stock exchange and military headquarters on Tuesday in the latest countrywide demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned judicial overhaul.
The latest “day of disruption” came as longtime allies of the prime minister pushed a contentious piece of legislation through a parliamentary committee ahead of a vote expected next week.
Additional protests are planned throughout the day, including on the platforms at train stations around the country during the afternoon rush hour.
Demonstrators, many of them military reservists, created human chains and blocked one of the entrances to the Kirya, Israel’s military headquarters in central Tel Aviv. Outside the Tel Aviv stock exchange, demonstrators ignited smoke bombs, drummed and chanted, and held up signs reading “save our startup nation” and “dictatorship will kill the economy.”
Others demonstrated outside the headquarters of the Histadrut, Israel’s largest labor union, demanding the organization calls for a general strike — a move that could paralyze the country’s economy. Protesters scaled scaffolding outside the building and hoisted reservist protest flags. The labor union had called a strike in March, a move that contributed to Netanyahu freezing the judicial overhaul.
Itai Bar Natan, 48, CFO of an Israeli start-up, said he was angry enough to climb the scaffolding and wave the flag that read “Brothers in arms,” a slogan used by military reservists protesting against the judicial overhaul.
“This government is totally insane. We are afraid for our democracy, for everything we’ve built — that’s why we are all here fighting,” Natan said.
Police said officers had arrested at least 19 people suspected of public disturbance during protests blocking highways in central Israel.
The Israel Medical Association also announced that it would be holding a two-hour strike in protest of the legislation on Wednesday.
Netanyahu heads the most ultranationalist and religiously conservative government in Israel’s 75-year history. He proposed a series of drastic changes to the country’s judiciary shortly after taking office in December. His government took office in the aftermath of the country’s fifth elections in under four years, all of them regarded as referendums on his fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.
The weekly mass protests led Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul in March but he decided to revive the plan last month after compromise talks with the political opposition collapsed.
The proposed laws would grant lawmakers greater control over the appointment of judges and give parliament the power to overturn high court decisions and pass laws impervious to judicial review.
Tuesday’s protests came as Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, was visiting Washington and set to meet with President Joe Biden. Herzog’s visit comes a day after Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone and invited him to meet in the U.S. this fall, despite expressing concern about the controversial plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.
The bill making its way through parliament this week would eliminate the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions it deems unreasonable. Judges used that “reasonability clause” to annul a key Netanyahu ally’s appointment as interior minister after accepting a plea deal for tax evasion in 2021.
He and his allies say the measures are necessary to curb an over-activist Supreme Court comprised of unelected judges. Critics say the judicial overhaul will concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies and undermine the country’s system of checks and balances.
They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes.