By JOSEF FEDERMAN and ILAN BEN ZION
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday vowed to “mend the rift” in a nation deeply divided over his proposed overhaul of the country’s judiciary. But he offered no details on how he intends to do so and gave no indication that he would slow down the plan.
Netanyahu delivered his appeal in a nationally televised address after another day of mass protests across the country against the plan, and hours after his parliamentary coalition passed the first in a series of laws that make up the overhaul. His vague pledges were quickly rejected by the protest movement, which said it would continue to oppose “Netanyahu’s attempt to become a dictator.”
Protesters blocked traffic on main highways and scuffled with police in unrest that shows no sign of abating. Police used water cannons to disperse crowds, and dozens of people — including leaders of the protest movement — were arrested.
The government’s plan has plunged the nearly 75-year-old nation into one of its worst domestic crises.
Netanyahu and his allies want to weaken the powers of the judiciary, saying unelected Supreme Court justices and other judges wield too much power.
Critics say the changes, which would give Netanyahu and his conservative allies the final say in choosing the country’s judges, will destroy a delicate system of checks and balances. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest while he is on trial for multiple corruption charges.
In his speech, Netanyahu said he understood the concerns of both sides. He accused the Supreme Court of intervening in political issues but also acknowledged concerns by his opponents that a narrow parliamentary majority could impose its will and harm the rights of LGBTQ people, Palestinian citizens and other minorities.
“We will ensure the basic rights of all Israeli citizens — Jews and non-Jews, secular and religious, women, the LGBTQ community, everyone without exception,” he said. “I will do everything to calm the waters and mend the rift in the nation, because we are family.”
As he spoke, thousands of people continued to march in cities across Israel, including a large crowd outside of his private residence in Jerusalem. Netanyahu pushed back his departure on an official trip to Britain until 4 a.m. on Friday to deal with the crisis.
His opponents quickly rejected the speech.
The grassroots protest movement said it would press ahead with the demonstrations, which have taken place weekly for the past three months.
“Tonight we saw a dictator-in-the-making who instead of stopping the legal coup, decided to continue with the hostile political takeover of the Supreme Court,” it said.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Netanyahu made clear he has “no intention of holding true dialogue.” He called on “responsible” members of Netanyahu’s Likud party to speak up against the plan.
Among Lapid’s targets is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, a top Likud official who met with Netanyahu shortly before the speech.
According to Israeli media, Gallant voiced his concerns that objections by Israeli reservists and other security forces were hurting Israel’s international image and power of deterrence. However, Gallant abruptly canceled a planned statement in which he was expected to call on Netanyahu to freeze the plan.
The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society — including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country’s military, seen as a beacon of stability by Israel’s Jewish majority, is enmeshed in the political conflict, as some reservists are refusing to show up for duty over the changes. Israel’s international allies have also expressed concern.
In a first step of the overhaul, Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule because of his trial and claims of a conflict of interest. Critics say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu and encourages corruption.
The law to protect Netanyahu passed in a 61-47 vote in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, after a debate that ran through the night. It stipulates that a prime minister can only be deemed unfit to rule for health or mental reasons and that only he or his government can make that decision.
Civil society groups have called on the attorney general to declare him unfit to rule over his legal problems. The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from direct involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a good governance organization, said it would challenge the new law in court.
On Thursday, protesters launched a fourth midweek day of demonstrations. They blocked major thoroughfares, set tires ablaze near an important seaport and draped a large Israeli flag and a banner with the country’s Declaration of Independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
The protests have intensified in recent weeks, with a number of senior Cabinet ministers accosted and heckled by vocal crowds while making public appearances. Netanyahu called on opposition leaders to “stop the anarchy immediately.”
A protest took place Thursday night in Bnei Brak, a large ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. The overhaul crisis has magnified a longstanding rift between secular Jewish Israelis and religious ones over how much of a role religion should play in their day-to-day lives.
Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in government are central drivers of the overhaul because they believe the courts are a threat to their traditional way of life. In contrast, secular opponents to the changes fear they will open the door to religious coercion. They also object to exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox men from military duty, which is mandatory for most Jews.
Along with Thursday’s demonstrations, tens of thousands have been showing up for weekly protests each Saturday night.
Netanyahu’s government rejected a compromise proposal earlier this month meant to ease the crisis. It said that it would slow the pace of the changes, pushing most of them to after a monthlong parliamentary recess in April.
But the government is plowing forward on a key part of the overhaul, which would grant the government control over who becomes a judge. That measure is expected to pass next week.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he could find an escape route from the charges through the legal overhaul his government is advancing.
Israel’s Palestinian minority has largely avoided participating in the demonstrations. Rights groups and Palestinians say Israel’s democratic ideals have long been tarnished by the country’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state and the treatment of Palestinian Israeli citizens, who face discrimination in many spheres.