Netanyahu critics urge Germany, Britain to cancel his visits over judicial overhaul

Hundreds of writers, artists and intellectuals send letter to both countries’ ambassadors warning that if PM’s trips go ahead, ‘a dark shadow will hang over them’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart for Rome on March 9, 2023 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara depart for Rome on March 9, 2023 (Amos Ben Gershom / GPO)

Hundreds of Israeli writers, artists, and intellectuals on Tuesday called on Germany and Britain to cancel upcoming visits by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying his plan to overhaul Israel’s judicial system has put the country on a destructive course.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court and give them control over the appointment of the nation’s judges.

They say the plan is a long-overdue measure to curb what they see as outsize influence by unelected judges. But critics say the plan will destroy Israel’s fragile system of checks and balances by concentrating power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority. They also say it is an attempt by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, to escape justice.

Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest the sweeping overhaul. Local protests last week were so large that Netanyahu was forced to take a helicopter to the airport in order to catch a flight for an official visit to Italy.

High-tech leaders, Nobel-winning economists, and prominent security officials have spoken out against it, military reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty and even some of Israel’s closest allies, including the US, have urged Netanyahu to slow down. Repeated efforts by President Isaac Herzog to broker a compromise have not yielded fruit.

In a letter addressed to the German and British ambassadors in Israel, some 1,000 Israeli figures said Tuesday that Israel is in the midst of the most extreme crisis in its history and that Netanyahu is trying to turn the country into a “theocratic dictatorship.”

“In the face of Mr. Netanyahu’s dangerous and destructive leadership, and in light of a vast democratic civilian resistance against the destruction of state institutions by undemocratic law-making, we are asking that Germany and Great Britain swiftly announce to the defendant Netanyahu that his planned state visits to your countries are canceled,” reads the letter. “If these visits go ahead as planned, a dark shadow will hang over them.”

Author David Grossman speaks during a protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, January 21, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The letter was signed by internationally acclaimed author David Grossman, novelist Dorit Rabinyan, Oscar-nominated director Uri Barbash and scores of academics, business figures, and professionals.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday in Berlin, where Israeli expats say they are organizing a large protest against their visiting prime minister.

Last week, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier reportedly expressed concern about the overhaul, saying, “The plan to reorganize the rule of law on the part of the government in Israel worries me.”

At a Berlin reception to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of Haifa, Steinmeier also praised a speech by his Israeli peer Herzog who denounced the overhaul as “oppressive” and harmful to democracy and called for it to be abandoned immediately and replaced by a framework for consensual reform, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Netanyahu returned to power in December, following the country’s fifth election in under four years, at the head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s 75-year history.

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