Israelis Protest Ahead of Crunch Week for Justice Reforms

 People waving Israel's national flag, take to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against the government's controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (AFP)
People waving Israel's national flag, take to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against the government's controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (AFP)
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Israelis Protest Ahead of Crunch Week for Justice Reforms

 People waving Israel's national flag, take to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against the government's controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (AFP)
People waving Israel's national flag, take to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest against the government's controversial judicial overhaul bill, on March 25, 2023. (AFP)

Thousands of Israelis rallied in Tel Aviv Saturday against a controversial judicial overhaul by the hard-right government, ahead of a key week expected to see more legislative steps and mass protests.

The latest demonstration to hit Israel's commercial hub came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with the changes despite mounting international alarm.

"We're here today to show up and add our voice to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Israelis that support the values that this country was founded on," said high-tech worker Daniel Nisman, mentioning democracy and tolerance.

"This is all we can hope for, that he (Netanyahu) brings us back from the edge of the abyss," the 36-year-old told AFP.

Demonstrations erupted in January after the coalition announced its reform package, which the government says is necessary to rebalance powers between lawmakers and the judiciary.

Rallies have repeatedly drawn tens of thousands of protesters, according to Israeli media estimates, and an AFP journalist saw thousands already gathering in Tel Aviv early on Saturday evening.

"More Israelis are waking up," said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the Umbrella Movement of protests.

"We're not going to live in a dictatorship. Even if they do pass the judicial coup, this protest is not going anywhere," the 26-year-old told AFP ahead of the rally.

'End the rift'

Plans to hand more control to politicians and diminish the role of the Supreme Court have been questioned by Israel's top allies including the United States.

US President Joe Biden has expressed "our concerns over these proposals, these proposed judicial reforms", White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said on Wednesday.

Netanyahu was also met by hundreds of protesters in London, where he met his British counterpart Rishi Sunak on Friday.

During the talks, the British premier "stressed the importance of upholding the democratic values that underpin our relationship, including in the proposed judicial reforms", a spokesperson said.

Israeli lawmakers are due to vote on a central part of the government's proposals next week, which foresees changing the way judges are appointed.

Netanyahu said Thursday that the legislation "does not take control of the court but balances and diversifies it".

A parliamentary committee has amended the draft law with the aim of making it more palatable to opponents, but the opposition has ruled out backing any part of the reform package until all legislative steps are halted.

In response, demonstrators have announced a "national paralysis week", including countrywide rallies, protests outside ministers' homes and on Wednesday outside parliament.

In his televised address on Thursday, Netanyahu said he would do everything "to calm the situation and end the rift in the nation".

Even so, the premier said his administration remained "determined to correct and responsibly advance the democratic reform that will restore the proper balance between the authorities" by ploughing on with the overhaul.

Netanyahu came under fire a day later from Israel's attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who said his public intervention was "illegal" due to his ongoing corruption trial.

The top legal official cited a previous court ruling that an indicted prime minister has no right to act on a matter that could place him in a conflict of interest.



Ukraine Realizes a Dream as It Launches EU Membership Talks, but Joining Is Likely to Take Years

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishyna (6-L, front row) poses with European affairs ministers and representatives at the first meeting of the Conference on Accession of Ukraine to the European Union in Luxembourg, 25 June 2024. (EPA)
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishyna (6-L, front row) poses with European affairs ministers and representatives at the first meeting of the Conference on Accession of Ukraine to the European Union in Luxembourg, 25 June 2024. (EPA)
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Ukraine Realizes a Dream as It Launches EU Membership Talks, but Joining Is Likely to Take Years

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishyna (6-L, front row) poses with European affairs ministers and representatives at the first meeting of the Conference on Accession of Ukraine to the European Union in Luxembourg, 25 June 2024. (EPA)
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Olga Stefanishyna (6-L, front row) poses with European affairs ministers and representatives at the first meeting of the Conference on Accession of Ukraine to the European Union in Luxembourg, 25 June 2024. (EPA)

The European Union launched membership talks with Ukraine on Tuesday, a decade after Russian troops seized the Crimean Peninsula to deter the country from moving closer to the West, part of a chain of events that set the two neighbors on the path to war.

Ukraine’s accession negotiations were set in motion at an intergovernmental conference in Luxembourg. Moldova is also due to launch its membership talks later Tuesday. While the events are a major milestone on their European paths, the talks could take years to conclude.

In opening remarks presented via video-link, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal described it as “a historic day” that marks “a new chapter” in his country’s ties with the bloc, particularly as the war with Russia rages on.

“We fully understand that there is still much work ahead of us on the path to accession. We are ready for it. We have demonstrated that we can move swiftly and achieve the impossible,” Shmyhal said.

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, whose country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, described it as “a historic moment for us all, and marks a milestone in our relationship.”

Lahbib said the EU condemns “Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine and salutes the resilience of the Ukrainian people,” and added that the bloc will continue to support Ukraine in the war “for as long as it takes and as intensely as needed.”

Ukraine's delegation was led in Luxembourg by deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration Olga Stefanishyna. “This is a truly historical moment for my country. All the nation stands as one behind this decision,” she told reporters as she arrived for the ceremony.

Stefanishyna said the hope embodied in the opening of the talks will give Ukraine's citizens “the moral power to continue withstanding” the Russian invasion.

The intergovernmental conference officially started the process of aligning the country’s laws and standards with those of the 27-nation bloc, which is notably concerned about corruption in Ukraine. However, the actual negotiations are unlikely to begin for a few months.

Both Ukraine and Moldova applied to join the EU in the days and weeks after Russia invaded in February 2022. By June 2022, EU leaders had quickly made it all official. But things have moved more slowly since then for Kyiv and membership, if it comes, might be years away.

Türkiye's accession talks have lasted almost two decades without result.

Still, starting the talks process is sending another strong signal of solidarity with Ukraine beyond the financial support the EU has provided, which officials estimate at around 100 billion euros ($107 billion). It’s also a show of support for Moldova, which has faced its own challenges with Russia.

Candidate countries must bring their laws and standards into line with those of the EU in 35 policy areas, known as chapters, ranging from the free movement of goods through fisheries, taxation, energy and the environment to judicial rights and security.

Unanimous agreement must be given by all 27 member countries to open or close chapters, providing ample opportunity for EU nations to demand more work or to delay proceedings.

Hungary, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency from Belgium in July, has routinely put the brakes on EU and NATO support for Ukraine.

“We are still at the beginning of the screening process. It’s very difficult to say at what stage Ukraine is in. From what I see here, as we speak, they are very far from meeting the accession criteria,” Hungarian Minister for European Affairs Janos Boka said as he arrived at the venue.

Bordering EU members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, Ukraine would overtake France to become the largest member of the bloc if it joined, shifting its center of gravity further eastward. As a top grain producer its entry would have a huge impact on EU agriculture policy.

Together with Moldova, Ukraine stands in a long line of EU hopefuls — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Türkiye — with years-long membership aspirations and which have felt left behind by Kyiv’s rapid progress.

Ukraine wants to join by 2030, but it must carry out dozens of institutional and legal reforms first. That daunting list is led by steps to combat corruption and includes broad reforms to public administration and judiciary.