Israel’s Netanyahu defends judicial reforms, air force chief warns of security threat

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said parliament’s decision to trim Supreme Court powers to overrule government actions as part of his planned judicial overhaul would not hurt Israel’s democracy.

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The plans being pursued by Netanyahu and his right-wing government have spurred months of unprecedented protests, opened up a deep divide in Israeli society, and strained the loyalties of some army reservists.

Now in its seventh month, the crisis escalated on Monday after parliament passed the first of the changes, trimming Supreme Court powers to overrule government actions and raising fears for the court’s independence.

Netanyahu went on the offensive, giving several interviews to US media late on Thursday.

Speaking to ABC News, Netanyahu said the amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as a formal constitution, was “a minor correction” to an “activist” court.

“It’s described as the end of Israeli democracy - I think that’s silly and when the dust settles, everybody will see it,” he said.

While Netanyahu downplayed the consequences of his plans, air force chief, Tomer Bar, warned the crisis could be exploited by Israel’s enemies.

“It is possible that at a time like this they will try to test the frontiers, our cohesion and our alertness. We must continue to be vigilant and prepared, as I am sure we will be,” Bar said in an address to his forces, according to a statement released on Friday. He did not elaborate.

On CNN, Netanyahu refused to say whether he would obey a potential Supreme Court ruling quashing Monday’s amendment, the first piece of legislation in his religious-nationalist government’s judicial overhaul plan.

Protest leaders say growing numbers of military reservists have decided to stop serving to express their opposition. The military has acknowledged an increase in requests to abstain from service, and said that damage would be done, gradually, to war-readiness if the no-shows proved protracted.

Political watchdog groups have appealed to the Supreme Court to strike the new law, paving the way to a showdown among branches of government when it hears the arguments in September.

The legal tussle will begin as early as next Thursday, however, when the top court will hear an appeal against a coalition bill ratified in March that limited conditions for removing the prime minister from office.

Protesters have said they would be out in force again.

They accuse Netanyahu of working to curb court independence even as he argues his innocence in a graft trial, and of unilaterally changing the justice system to the detriment of once-dominant secular liberals.

The prime minister says the changes will balance government branches. He casts the protests as a bid to thwart his democratic mandate.

Netanyahu’s plans have hit the economy by drawing warnings from credit agencies, triggering foreign investor flight. The ongoing controversy is increasing domestic political uncertainty and will lead to lower economic growth this year, S&P Global Ratings said in a report.

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