Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday he is still “open for negotiations” on a key clause of his hard-right government’s controversial judicial reforms, as protests intensified ahead of final votes on the bill.
Israel has been rocked by a months-long wave of protests after the government unveiled in January plans to overhaul the judicial system that opponents say threaten the country’s democracy.
An Israeli parliamentary committee has already moved to limit the “reasonability” clause that allows the judiciary to strike down government decisions, in a marathon debate that ended late Wednesday.
But Netanyahu, in a statement that was broadcast live on television Thursday evening, attempted to reach out to protesters and critics who have rallied against the reforms.
“I’m prime minister to all of you … we are still trying to reach an agreement with the opposition,” Netanyahu said.
“Even now there are efforts to reach an agreement on the reasonability clause. I really hope that the efforts will be successful, but even if not, my door remains open for negotiations.”
Netanyahu in March paused the legislative process and launched cross-party talks over the issue, but opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz pulled out of the discussions.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu launched a fresh political offensive to push through the reforms in parliament.
Reforms to ‘strengthen democracy’
Protesters claim the judiciary reforms would turn Israel into a dictatorship, a charge Netanyahu dismissed.
“Israel will continue to be democratic, liberal, and will protect the rights of all citizens,” he said.
“This law will strengthen democracy.”
The bill is due for second and third readings in parliament on Monday after receiving approval from parliament’s law committee.
If approved by the full parliament, it would be the first major component of the government’s proposed legal overhaul to become law.
Protesters have kept up pressure on the government, and on Thursday launched rallies in several cities across the country, including Jerusalem.
Hundreds were marching from Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial hub, to the seat of parliament in Jerusalem.
“We are marching to Jerusalem to protect our country from becoming a dictatorship,” said protester Yair Palti, who participated in the multi-day march that began early Wednesday.
“We are a democracy but now we are already on the edge of dictatorship.”
Protesters set off every morning before taking a lengthy midday break then resuming their march at around 5:30 pm (1430 GMT).
They plan to reach Jerusalem by Saturday night and camp near the Knesset as lawmakers vote on Monday on the controversial bill.
The judicial reforms have split the nation and sparked one of the biggest protest movements in Israel’s history, with weekly demonstrations often drawing tens of thousands.
Other proposed reforms include giving the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.
The government, which includes Netanyahu’s extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues that the changes are necessary to ensure a better balance of power.
Some critics of Netanyahu, who is fighting corruption charges in court, have argued he was seeking to undermine a judicial system he has accused of targeting him unfairly for political reasons.
Most recently, “reasonability” was cited by Israel’s top court to force Netanyahu to remove a cabinet member over a previous tax evasion conviction.
The reforms have also drawn international criticism, including from Israel’s close ally the United States.
US President Joe Biden has regularly voiced criticism of the proposed judicial reforms.
“My recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush,” Biden was quoted as saying by columnist Thomas Friedman in the New York Times this week.
“I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here.”