Netanyahu defiant over legal reforms as Scholz urges compromise

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Bellevue Castle in Berlin on Mar. 16, 2023. (Reuters)
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Updated 16 March 2023

Netanyahu defiant over legal reforms as Scholz urges compromise

  • The package of judicial reforms has sparked weeks of protests in Israel since its introduction by Netanyahu's hard-right coalition
  • Scholz admitted he was watching the debate unfold in Israel "with great concern" and said that "as Israel's friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken"

BERLIN: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday fiercely defended disputed legal reforms on a visit to Berlin, where German Chancellor Olaf Scholz urged him to reconsider a compromise.
The package of judicial reforms has sparked weeks of protests in Israel since its introduction by Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, prompting Israel’s president to warn the nation may be on the brink of “civil war.”
Scholz admitted he was watching the debate unfold in Israel “with great concern” and said that “as Israel’s friend, we hope that the last word has not been spoken” on President Isaac Herzog’s proposals for compromise.
Herzog, who holds a largely ceremonial role, on Wednesday presented compromise plans — swiftly rejected by Netanyahu who said they would “only perpetuate the existing situation and do not bring the required balance between the powers.”
In Berlin, Netanyahu put on a defiant front, arguing his plans merely sought to bring Israel’s democracy “in line with what is common and acceptable in just about every Western democracy.”
He also hit out at “slanders and falsifications” against his own and his coalition’s intentions.
“Israel is being constantly... maligned. I’m supposed to be some... potentate who’s abolishing democracy and all this nonsense,” he charged at a press conference, standing next to Scholz, adding, “this is absurd, it’s preposterous.”
Netanyahu’s coalition, which includes ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties, says the reforms are needed to limit judicial overreach, but protesters say they threaten Israel’s liberal democracy by weakening key checks and balances.
Ten consecutive weeks of nationwide demonstrations have followed, with critics also alleging the proposed changes aim to protect Netanyahu as he fights corruption charges in an ongoing court battle.
With the strife far from easing, Herzog warned late Wednesday that “anyone who thinks that a genuine civil war, with human lives, is a line that we could never reach, has no idea what he is talking about.
“It is precisely now, in the State of Israel’s 75th year of independence, that the abyss is within touching distance. Today, I say to you what I told them: civil war is a red line.
“I will not allow it to happen,” he said, adding he was convinced the majority of Israelis want a compromise.
The changes proposed by the coalition would allow lawmakers to override Supreme Court decisions that strike down legislation with a parliamentary majority, and then deny the court the right to review such a move.
It would also make it harder for the Supreme Court to strike down legislation it deems to contravene Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi constitution.
Israeli protesters returned to the streets on Thursday, with some holding up placards saying the reforms spelled “the end of democracy.”
In Berlin, several hundred protesters also turned out at the Brandenburg Gate, a short distance from the chancellery where Netanyahu and Scholz held talks.
Among them was Israeli Oren Goldberg, 44, who had traveled from the Netherlands to Berlin to join in the protest.
“I’m here to give a big welcome to the want to be dictator in Israel, to show him we won’t accept it,” he told AFP.
The controversy in Israel puts Germany in an uncomfortable position.
The two nations forged strong diplomatic ties in the decades after World War II, with Berlin committed to the preservation of the Israeli state in penance for the Holocaust.
Successive German governments have described Israel’s national security as a crucial foreign policy priority.
Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit on Monday said Netanyahu is the “elected prime minister of Israel and therefore also a normal guest in Germany.”
But amid the row in Israel, in carefully worded statements, German leaders have voiced their worries.
On the eve of talks with Netanyahu, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he planned to raise the reforms with the Israeli prime minister.
Israel is the “only democracy in the whole region, a country with a strong constitutional state,” he said. “What I would like to see is that what we have admired about Israel... is preserved.”


UN rights investigator says EU aided and abetted abuse of migrants in Libya

Updated 27 March 2023

UN rights investigator says EU aided and abetted abuse of migrants in Libya

GENEVA: A member of the UN fact-finding mission to Libya investigating rights abuses said on Monday that European Union support for Libyan authorities that stop and detain migrants had “aided and abetted” the commission of rights violations against migrants.
“We’re not saying that the EU and its member states have committed these crimes. The point is that the support given has aided and abetted the commission of the crimes,” Chaloka Beyani said in a news conference while unveiling the mission’s report.


Iraq changes electoral law, sparking opposition anger

Updated 27 March 2023

Iraq changes electoral law, sparking opposition anger

  • The law revives the electoral law of 2018 and sweeps away one of the gains of the mass protest movement which shook Iraq

BAGHDAD: Iraq’s parliament voted Monday to restore electoral laws that were scrapped after 2019 anti-government demonstrations, sparking anger from independent lawmakers who see it benefiting larger parties.
The law, which parliament said in a statement was “adopted” without detailing the votes, revives the electoral law of 2018 and sweeps away one of the gains of the mass protest movement which shook Iraq.
After the protests, a new system favored the emergence of independent candidates, with some 70 independents winning seats in the 329-member parliament in the last legislative elections in 2021.
Parliament is dominated by the Coordination Framework, an alliance of powerful pro-Iran Shiite factions, from whose ranks Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani emerged.
The new law removes 83 electoral districts and creates 18 seats, one for each of Iraq’s provinces.
This “makes it easier for top party politicians to win seats,” analyst Sajad Jiyad said on Twitter.
Conversely, it will make it “harder for candidates in smaller parties and independents to compete” because they will be running at a provincial rather than a local level, he added.
During the debate, which ran from Sunday into the early hours of Monday, several angry independent lawmakers were expelled from the debating chamber, according to videos they filmed themselves.
The law also replaces a first past the post system with proportional representation.
Overall, the changes will benefit the larger parties and make it possible “for their candidates who didn’t get enough votes initially to win seats,” Jiyad added.
“Independent candidates will no longer have any hope of obtaining representation in parliament,” said Alaa Al-Rikabi, an independent lawmaker. “They will be crushed.”
But Coordination Framework lawmaker Bahaa Al-Dine Nouri welcomed the change, arguing that it will “distribute the seats according to the size of the parties.”
Nouri said this will “lead to the formation of a government within the time limits set by the constitution” to avoid the endless standoffs that followed the 2021 election.
The new law will apply to the next legislative elections, the date of which has not yet been set.
It will also apply to provincial elections slated for November 6, to be held in 15 of the 18 Iraqi provinces, excluding the three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, regional elections will take place on November 18 under a separate electoral system.


Saudi, Iranian foreign ministers to meet during Ramadan

Updated 27 March 2023

Saudi, Iranian foreign ministers to meet during Ramadan

  • The diplomats discussed in a phone call a number of issues relating to the trilateral agreement signed in China 
  • The Kingdom and Iran agreed on March 10 to re-establish diplomatic ties and reopen their embassies within two months

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have agreed to meet during the month of Ramadan, the Saudi Press Agency reported early Monday. 

The diplomats also discussed in a phone call a number of issues relating to the trilateral agreement signed in China. 

"During the call, a number of common issues were discussed in light of the tripartite agreement that was signed in the People's Republic of China," Saudi state news agency SPA said. 

“The two ministers also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting between them during the ongoing month of Ramadan.” 

Ramadan is likely to end on April 20. 

The Kingdom and Iran agreed on March 10 to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months following years of tensions. 


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes U-turn in judicial power grab

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem amid protests
Updated 28 March 2023

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes U-turn in judicial power grab

  • With Israel in chaos amid mass protests, he said judicial reform plans will be delayed at least until parliament reconvenes on April 30
  • Opponents said protests will continue until the plans are scrapped; meanwhile Palestinians ponder short and long-term effects of the chaos on them

RAMALLAH: Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday delayed controversial judicial reforms that have plunged Israel into chaos and that critics say are a power grab. The prime minister halted the legislation until parliament reconvenes on April 30.

“When there’s an opportunity to avoid civil war through dialogue, I, as prime minister, am taking a timeout for dialogue,” he said. Netanyahu added that he remained determined to enact the judicial reforms but called for “an attempt to achieve broad consensus.”

After the announcement, the head of Israel’s largest trade union called off a general strike that had threatened to bring Israel’s economy to a standstill. Earlier, tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside the Knesset in a dramatic escalation of the mass protest movement aimed at halting the reforms.

The chaos shut down much of the country. Departing flights from the main international airport were grounded. Shopping malls and universities closed their doors, diplomats at foreign missions stopped work, and hospital medical staff offered only emergency services.

The growing resistance to Netanyahu’s plans came hours after tens of thousands of people burst onto streets around the country in a spontaneous show of anger at the prime minister’s decision to fire his defense minister, who had called for a pause to the overhaul. Chanting “the country is on fire,” they lit bonfires on Tel Aviv’s main highway, closing the road and many others throughout the country for hours.

Demonstrators gathered again on Monday outside the Knesset, turning the streets surrounding the building and the Supreme Court into a roiling sea of blue-and-white Israeli flags. Large demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Haifa and other cities drew thousands more.

“This is the last chance to stop this move into a dictatorship,” said Matityahu Sperber, 68, who joined a stream of people headed to the protest outside the Knesset. “I’m here for the fight to the end.”

Netanyahu’s U-turn appeared to ease tensions somewhat but organizers of the grassroots anti-government protest movement said a delay would not be enough.

“A temporary freeze does not suffice, and the national protests will continue to intensify until the law is rejected in the Knesset,” organizers said.

Israel’s Arab citizens have largely ignored the protests. They said Israel’s democracy is already tarnished by its military rule over the occupied West Bank and the discrimination they face inside Israel itself.

One senior Palestinian leader told Arab News: “I see our task as Palestinians being to deepen the crisis inside Israel, which means that we do not support the opposition against Netanyahu, but rather weaken both sides because they will compete over who can harm the Palestinians the most.

“The issue of reforming the judiciary is not an internal matter. Rather, its goal is to control the West Bank. They want to reform the High Court because it was a brake on their racist occupation policies against the Palestinians.”

With Israel in turmoil, Palestinians are watching and wondering how the chaos might affect them in the short and long terms. Some say the crisis has reinforced the awareness that democracy and occupation cannot coexist. Others suggest that the Israeli security services are so preoccupied with the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it could to some degree loosen their iron grip on Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

There is also a belief among some that the protests will weaken Israel, ultimately to the benefit of the Palestinian people. Most believe, however, that any attacks by Palestinian resistance fighters inside Israel at this time would serve only to benefit Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition government partners, led by Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, by distracting from their political predicament.

Taysir Khaled, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, said the situation in Israel offers a valuable opportunity for Palestinians to adopt a fresh political approach and work to deepen Israel’s isolation, in the region and internationally, by highlighting the fact that Israeli policies of occupation, discrimination, apartheid and ethnic cleansing are incompatible with the basic values of democracy.

Though Palestinians have had limited success when pleading their cases at Israel’s Supreme Court, failing to prevent Israeli authorities from annexing more Palestinian land, should Netanyahu and his government ultimately succeed in effectively seizing control of the court, Palestinians would have no refuge at all, other than the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Palestinian political analyst Ghassan Al-Khatib told Arab News that if the wave of Israeli protests against the government continues, it will weaken the Israeli right wing, which would serve the interests of the Palestinian people.

In the meantime, however, one of the effects of the protests has been the closure of the Allenby Bridge, the only land crossing connecting the West Bank with Jordan, as the result of a strike by Israeli customs officials. This has paralyzed commercial traffic between Palestine and Jordan and the movement of travelers to and from the West Bank.

Amid fears that Netanyahu’s government might take action in the West Bank or Gaza Strip in an attempt to provoke a Palestinian response that would unite left and right wingers be creating a security threat, analysts and experts told Arab News that they do not believe the leaders of the Israeli security services would comply with any such attempt to launch deliberately provocative attacks at this time.

Retired Col. David Hacham, a former adviser on Arab affairs to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, said that Netanyahu cannot currently launch a military campaign against the West Bank in an attempt to divert attention from his plight. If Hamas was to attack Tel Aviv and security becomes a priority, however, the differences between politicians of the left and right might be set aside, he added.

Dana Ben Shimon, a correspondent for the newspaper Israel Today, agreed with Hacham and said: “(Hezbollah leader) Hassan Nasrallah and (Hamas leader) Yahya Sinwar are looking at the current chaos in Israel and whispering, saying, ‘We will not give Netanyahu and his government the gift of attacking Israel — let them be torn apart and drown on their own.’”

Shawan Jabarin, director of Al-Haq, a human rights organization in Ramallah, told Arab News: “The Palestinians must link the crisis in Israel to the existence of the occupation, as there is no difference between right and left when it comes to the Palestinians.”

Mohammed Darawsheh, strategic director of the Givat Habiba Center and a political analyst who lives in Israel, told Arab News that Arabs in the country have not participated in the protests against the judicial reforms because “we do not trust the Supreme Court and we are not part of the patriotism of Israel to demonstrate under its flag.”

Palestinians in Israel said that the Israeli Supreme Court is relatively liberal on Arab civil issues but is still part of the deep state in terms of legitimizing racism toward Arabs and the occupation.

Darawsheh said that should the judicial reforms eventually be implemented, Arabs in Israel will be much worse off. Arab schools that teach their students about the Nakba, for example, would lose 30 percent of their funding, he said. It is also possible that Arab political parties could be banned from the Israeli parliament, and budgets for services that benefit Arab citizens could be cut and the money redirected to settlers and Orthodox Jews.

Arab leaders should organize their own parallel protests against the planned reforms, Darawsheh said, to increase the pressure on Netanyahu and his government “because giving up our rights without fighting a battle is a huge mistake.”

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Lebanon overturns unpopular decision to delay daylight saving time

Updated 28 March 2023

Lebanon overturns unpopular decision to delay daylight saving time

  • The unilateral decision taken by Prime Minister Najib Mikati to postpone daylight saving time for one month sparked controversy and sectarian reactions

BEIRUT: The Lebanese Cabinet decided to officially shift to daylight saving time overnight from Wednesday to Thursday, during an extraordinary session on Monday.

The unilateral decision taken by Prime Minister Najib Mikati late last week, following a discussion with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, to postpone daylight saving time for one month sparked controversy and sectarian reactions, especially by the Maronite community.

Mikati’s decision showed how easily Lebanon could slip into more division, a reflection of the political tension stemming from the five-month presidential vacuum.

“Since former President Michel Aoun’s term ended, I have been tirelessly working with a group of ministers, the army, security forces, and…public administration employees to preserve the structure of the Lebanese state, which, if it collapses, becomes very difficult to reconfigure. I have never been a fan of defiance or encroaching on religious authorities,” Mikati said Monday.

“The decision was aimed at (allowing) those fasting during the month of Ramadan (to rest) for an hour without causing any harm to any other Lebanese component,” he said.

“I never imagined that some would consider this a confessional or sectarian decision…I have been struggling under a mountain of accusations and deceptions.

“I steadfastly endured and suffered in silence, but today I place everyone before their responsibilities.

“The easiest thing for me to do is to refrain from holding Cabinet sessions, and the most difficult thing is to continue to bear the responsibility. Every person has a personal endurance level, and mine is running low.

“The main problem is the vacancy in the presidency, and I do not take responsibility for this vacuum. Those responsible are the political and spiritual leaders, primarily those parliamentary blocs that disrupted the quorum during 11 election sessions, and those that pledged not to secure it in subsequent sessions without agreeing on a candidate.”

Mikati stressed that the Sunni community he represents “has always been patriotic…and preserved throughout history the unity of the country and its institutions and (has) worked, through its elites and leaders, to formulate national, non-sectarian projects since Lebanon’s independence.”

He added the announcement to overturn last week’s decision requires “a 48-hour delay to settle some technical matters,” in reference to rescheduling flight times to and from Beirut and scheduling computer servers in institutions and mobile phone networks.

The Lebanese have been divided over the decision. Some private media institutions and educational institutions have refused to abide by Mikati’s decision. Caretaker Minister of Education Abbas Halabi said in a statement Sunday that “daylight saving time remains approved and applied in the educational sector.”

Those who rejected Mikati’s decision argued that amending the daylight saving time requires a Cabinet decision and that Mikati took it unilaterally, which is why the Cabinet convened Monday to discuss the issue exclusively.

The Lebanese Cabinet will also hold a session to approve increases in public sector salaries and to implement an agreement to raise the minimum wage to 4,500,000 Lebanese pounds ($295), increase the transportation allowance to 125,000 Lebanese pounds, and double schooling and family allowances.

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