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Israel unrest: Reform protests and new Israeli-Palestinian violence

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Thousands of Israeli protesters gathered Feb. 18th in Jerusalem near the homes of Israeli president Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to voice opposition to Netanyahu's proposed judicial reform legislation, which critics say would undermine Israel's democracy. (photo credit Tom Hall)

Today on Midday, we turn our focus to foreign affairs, with conversations about Israel and Ukraine. Later in the hour, Tom speaks with an American lawyer and consultant who works with businesses in Ukraine about how Ukrainians are coping with the ravages of Russian aggression.

But we begin with Israel, which is experiencing tremendous internal political tension and terrible new incidents of violence between Israelis and Palestinians

Last month, Tom and his wife Linell visited Israel for ten days, traveling with their friends, Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg and Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg, Baltimore religious leaders who have lots of experience working and studying in Israel. The Burgs fashioned an itinerary that took them to sites important to Jewish and Christian history throughout the country.

They spent several days in Jerusalem, and on Saturday, February 18, when Shabbat had ended and the sun had set, they walked just a few blocks from where they were staying to a large protest in front of the home of Isaac "Bougie" Herzog, the President of Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom everyone calls "Bibi," lives not far from Herzog’s house. But the political power that each wields couldn’t be more disparate.

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Benjamin Netanyahu is the Prime Minister of Israel and the head of the right-wing Likud Party. Mr. Netanyahu is also in legal jeopardym facing indictments for corruption. (Netanyahu Twitter photo)

The President of Israel plays a largely ceremonial role. It is the Prime Minister and the Knesset that shape the laws and public policy in Israel. Bibi Netanyahu is the longest serving Prime Minister in Israeli history, and after a series of elections over the last couple of years, in December, 2022, he formed a coalition that returned him to power.

It is the most right-wing coalition to govern Israel in the country’s history. And it has wasted no time in enacting legislative and policy positions that have created tremendous political polarity among Israelis and have heightened tensions with Palestinians.

The group of protesters Tom encountered in Jerusalem 10 days ago numbered in the thousands. Subsequent protests in the last few days have drawn hundreds of thousands to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities.

The anger at the government stems from its attempts to weaken the authority of the courts. Netanyahu and his allies are proposing changing the way Supreme Court Justices are chosen, and allowing Parliament to overturn any decision the Supreme Court makes in regard to what are known as “basic” laws, which are equivalent to constitutional amendments, even though there is no written constitution in Israel.

Critics fear that this would allow this right-wing government to push through radical legislation and trample on the rights of minorities in this democratic society.

Much of the coverage in the American press about this controversy focuses on the fact that the Prime Minister himself is a current litigant in a 3 year-old court case, in which he has been charged with corruption. If he prevails in changing the laws regarding judicial review, it is possible that if convicted, that decision could be overturned by his allies in Parliament.

Tom spoke with several people who attended the protest. Netanyahu’s legal troubles were not a major concern. They were much more concerned with the impact his proposed reforms will have on democratic norms and protections.

Joining Tom now is Samuel Sokol. He is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz, Israel's daily newspaper of record. He’s been covering the judicial review controversy and the upsurge in violence in the West Bank and elsewhere. He joins us on Zoom…

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Samuel Sokol is a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Haaretz, Israel's daily newspaper of record. (photo credit: Samuel Sokol)

Samuel Sokol is also the author of a book about Russian aggression in Ukraine, called Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews: Antisemitism, Propaganda, and the Displacement of Ukrainian Jewry. Samuel will be speaking about the book and other issues in the news at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore in May…

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