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Protests grip Israel ahead of Supreme Court session on judicial overhaul

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-Hundreds of anti-government protesters shouting “Democracy” and waving national flags demonstrated outside the home of Israel’s justice minister on Monday ahead of a Supreme Court hearing on a bid by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to curb its judicial powers.

Police dragged away some protesters amid pushing and shoving tussles to a background of honking car horns. Demonstrators also blocked the car of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the main architects of the plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Police said they had arrested six people.

On Tuesday, the entire 15-judge Supreme Court bench will convene for the first time in Israeli history to hear an appeal against the judicial amendment passed by the coalition in July.

The overhaul has caused Israel’s worst domestic political crisis in years, with hundreds of thousands of people taking part in huge demonstrations over the past several months.

Critics of the reform say it hurts the independence of the court, opens the door to corruption and weakens democracy, while political supporters of Netanyahu say it will prevent the judiciary from over-reaching its powers.

Attempts to reach agreements between Netanyahu and his opponents over the plan have so far been fruitless, adding to fears the crisis will only deepen.

Despite the ramped-up rhetoric, a ruling from the Supreme Court could come as late as January, leaving time for the sides to reach agreement on the reforms, granting a possible reprieve after the months of protests, and signalling stability to the markets.

Former defence minister Benny Gantz, a main Netanyahu rival in the opposition, maintained he was still open to a compromise.

“If on the table there is a solution that will safeguard democracy, I’ll be there,” he said in a speech to the Herzliya Conference.

Monday’s scuffles broke out as police moved to control crowds gathering outside Levin’s house. A big demonstration is expected outside the court later on Monday.

The appellants in Tuesday’s hearing – opposition lawmakers and watchdog groups – say the amendment removes vital democratic checks and balances and invites abuses of power. They also argue that the rushed legislation process itself was flawed.

In its legal response to the petitions, the government has said the Supreme Court has no authority to even review the so-called “reasonableness” amendment to a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, and said the debate could “lead to anarchy”.

Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition launched its judicial campaign in January, triggering the unprecedented protests, spooking investors and sending the shekel down as Western allies voiced concern for the health of Israel’s democracy.

The protest has also seeped into the military, with some reservists saying they would not report for voluntary duty, prompting some defence chiefs to warn that Israel’s war-readiness could be at risk if the disaffection spread.

Netanyahu, who says the judicial changes are meant to balance a Supreme Court that has become too interventionist, has been hazy when asked whether he would abide by a ruling that would quash the new law.

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