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US envoy urges Netanyahu to slow down judicial reform amid protests

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The US envoy to Israel has urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slow progress on a controversial judicial reform.

He added that this issue may make it difficult for Washington to help him strengthen relations with Saudi Arabia or deal with Iran.

For weeks, Israel has been in a rage over Netanyahu’s far-right government’s plan to make changes to the judiciary, which critics say jeopardizes the country’s democratic checks and balances.

On Monday, Israel’s parliament may hold the first of three votes on a bill that would increase the government’s influence in selecting judges while limiting the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws or rule against the executive.

“We’re telling the prime minister, like I’m telling my boys, to pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together,” Ambassador Tom Nedis said in a broadcast on CNN’s The Ax Files, which was published late Saturday.

While Nieds stressed that Israel had the support of the United States in the field of security and at the United Nations, he also said that Netanyahu’s stated hope of establishing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia or dealing with Iran’s nuclear program was at stake.

“The prime minister wants to do big things, okay? He’s telling us he wants to do big things,” said Nedis. “I said to him, to the Prime Minister, a hundred times, we can’t spend time with the things we want to work on together if your backyard is on fire.”

Netanyahu spoke about the friction in Israel at a weekly cabinet meeting, though he did not refer to Neides’s remarks specifically.

“I am happy to frustrate our enemies and reassure our friends as well – Israel was, is and will be a strong, vibrant democracy. An independent democracy,” he said.

Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Shekli had a more contentious stance on Nedis, telling Kan public broadcaster: “I say to the US ambassador, ‘You’re hitting the brakes. Mind your own business. You’re not the sovereign here to discuss judicial reforms. We’re glad they discussed diplomatic and security matters with you, but Respect our democracy.”

Warning Israel is on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse,” President Isaac Herzog is trying to bring the government and opposition together to agree legal reforms and freeze legislation on the current plan, which back-to-back polls have shown has relatively little support and which has sparked nationwide protests.

Thousands are marching again

Earlier on Saturday, more than 100,000 Israelis took to the streets to show opposition to the planned judicial reforms.

This was the seventh consecutive week that people have protested against the government’s controversial legal plans to deliberately weaken the Supreme Court.

The reforms aim to give Parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority. Politicians should also be given more influence in appointing judges.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, which he denies, has said the changes are necessary in order to restore balance between the government, the Knesset and the judiciary, which some in his coalition accuse of elitism and overstepping its powers to interfere in the political sphere.

Critics see this as a threat to the democratic separation of powers. They also fear that the reforms could allow Prime Minister Netanyahu to escape conviction in his corruption trial.

In the absence of a written constitution in Israel, the Supreme Court has a special role to play in upholding the rule of law and human rights. However, the far-right religious government argues that the court currently wields too much political influence.

And in Tel Aviv, demonstrators gathered in the city center, many waving Israeli flags and carrying banners reading “Israel may not become a dictatorship” or calling for the support of the international community, saying “Biden and Macron helped us.”

Officials closed several streets earlier in the day because of the march.

Protests were also held in Jerusalem, Haifa and Beersheba.

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