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Israeli government pushes ahead with judicial plan despite outcry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition said it is pushing a key part of the overhaul before parliament takes a month-long holiday break.

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich

A firebrand Israeli minister claimed there is “no such thing” as a Palestinian people as Israel’s new coalition government, its most hardline ever, ploughed ahead on Monday with part of its plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition said it is pushing a key part of the overhaul – which would give the coalition control over who becomes a justice or a judge – before parliament takes a month-long holiday break next week.

The development came a day after an Israeli and Palestinian delegation at a meeting in Egypt, mediated by Egyptian, Jordanian and US officials, pledged to take steps to lower tensions rocking the region ahead of a sensitive holiday season.

It reflected the limited influence the Biden administration appears to have over Israel’s new far-right government and raised questions about attempts to lower tensions, both inside Israel and with the Palestinians, ahead of a sensitive holiday season.

Israel Politics
Demonstrators block a road in Tel Aviv during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul Israel’s judicial system (Ohad Zwigenberg/AP)

As the negotiators were issuing a joint communique, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich delivered a speech in Paris, saying the notion of a Palestinian people is artificial.

“There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language,” he said in France late on Sunday. He spoke at a lectern draped with what appeared to be a map of Israel that included the occupied West Bank and parts of Jordan.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry called Mr Smotrich’s remarks “racist, fascist and extremist”.

Mr Smotrich is a far-right settler leader who opposes Palestinian statehood and has a history of offensive statements against the Palestinians.

Last month, he called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank to be “erased” after radical Jewish settlers rampaged through the town in response to a gun attack that killed two Israelis. He later apologised after an international uproar.

During Sunday’s talks in Egypt, a Palestinian gunman carried out another shooting in Hawara, seriously wounding an Israeli man.

The new violence, along with Mr Smotrich’s comments, illustrated the tough challenges that lie ahead in soothing tensions after a year of deadly violence in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and more than 40 Israelis or foreigners have been killed in Palestinian attacks during that time.

Sunday’s summit came ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week. The Jewish festival of Passover is set to take place in April, coinciding with Ramadan.

The forthcoming period is sensitive because large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful pour into Jerusalem’s Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict and a flashpoint for violence, increasing friction points.

Large numbers of Jews are also expected to visit a key Jerusalem holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount — an act the Palestinians view as a provocation.

Clashes at the site in 2021 helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The heightened tensions with the Palestinians coincide with mass demonstrations inside Israel against Mr Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

Opponents of the measure have carried out disruptive protests, and the debate has embroiled the country’s military, where some reservists are refusing to show up for service. Mr Netanyahu has rejected a compromise by Israel’s figurehead president.

Biden Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then US Vice President Joe Biden at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January 2016 (Michel Euler/AP)

During his call with Mr Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden appealed for caution, the White House said, “as a friend of Israel in the hopes that there can be a compromise formula found”.

The president “underscored his belief that democratic values have always been, and must remain, a hallmark of the US-Israel relationship,” the White House said, adding that “fundamental changes should be pursued with the broadest possible base of popular support”.

Mr Netanyahu’s government says the plan is meant to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power over the legislative process.

Critics say the overhaul would upset the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and push Israel towards authoritarianism. They also say Mr Netanyahu could find an escape route from his corruption trial through the overhaul.

The protests, along with the rising violence with the Palestinians, have posed a major challenge for the new government.

So far this year, 85 Palestinians have been killed, according to a tally by the Associated Press. Fourteen people in Israel, all but one of them civilians, have been killed in Palestinian attacks.

The number of Israelis killed during the same period rose to 15 on Monday after Israeli media reported that Or Eshkar, 33, had died. He was shot in the head at point-blank range by a Palestinian in Tel Aviv on March 9.

Israel says most of the Palestinians killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting at the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their future independent state.

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