Russia targets Ukraine’s grain. French president’s first visit to Pacific. Cambodian prime minister hands power to son. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Protests fire up as Netanyahu judiciary bill causes chaos

Protesters light a fire on a highway.
Protesters light a fire on a highway after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed through controversial judicial reforms.
Credit: Mostafa Alkharouf / Getty Images

Great power rivalry

Ukraine: Russia attacked grain storage facilities and ports in Ukraine this week and reportedly intends to target commercial ships in the Black Sea, raising concerns about the risk to global wheat supplies.

Britain’s defence ministry said on Tuesday the Russian military had laid additional sea mines along approaches to Ukrainian ports and planned to blame any attacks on Ukraine. The move follows sustained Russian bombing of silos and export facilities in the port city of Odesa.

Britain’s United Nations ambassador, Barbara Woodward, told reporters British intelligence had indicated the Russian military “may expand their targeting of Ukrainian grain facilities further, to include attacks against civilian shipping in the Black Sea”.

Moscow last week withdrew from a deal to allow grain exports from Russia and Ukraine, which together account for more than a quarter of global wheat supplies. The deal had helped to reduce grain prices by 23 per cent. Russia said the deal was not properly allowing exports of its food and fertiliser.

In eastern and southern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military this week said it had made small advances but encountered heavy Russian resistance.

As the fighting continued, Russia’s legislature, which has already passed several laws to lift the maximum age for serving soldiers, raised the draft age. From January 1, the military will be able to conscript men who are 30 years old, up from a previous maximum of 27. 

The neighbourhood

New Caledonia: Emmanuel Macron visited the South Pacific in a bid to assert France’s role as a Pacific power and to shore up ties with New Caledonia, a French territory whose indigenous Kanak population has been pushing for independence.

The French president’s five-day trip this week, which included the first ever presidential visits to Papua New Guinea and Vanuatu, came as the United States and Australia have led efforts to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Macron has insisted he wants France – the only European Union nation that controls territory in the region – to remain a “Pacific power”.

Macron’s visit to New Caledonia was his first since a disputed referendum in December 2021 in which a majority voted to remain part of France. The vote had a turnout of only 44 per cent after it was boycotted by pro-independence parties that believed the Covid-19 pandemic had unfairly disrupted the campaign. Two previous referendums also resulted in votes against independence.

Promising further efforts to build a “shared history” and achieve reconciliation, Macron on Tuesday said the referendums were “not a full stop, it is a semicolon”.

“I am with our compatriots during these days to define together … this new project for the future of New Caledonia – respectful of its identity, of its history but in the light of the choice that has been made,” he told French television.

But efforts to determine a new status for the territory or establish negotiations – which pro-independence groups oppose – remain unclear.

Deomocracy in retreat

Cambodia: Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, is set to hand control to his oldest son, Hun Manet, after securing a landslide win in an election that was widely viewed as a sham.

At an election last weekend, Hun Sen, who has led the country for 38 years and has ruthlessly cracked down on political opponents and the media, gained another five-year term after his Cambodian People’s Party won an expected 120 of the 125 seats contested in the National Assembly. The main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, was disqualified from competing, and various opposition figures have been prosecuted and fled into exile. The US said the election was “neither free nor fair” and suspended some aid to Cambodia. 

On Wednesday, Hun Sen confirmed he would transfer control of the ruling party within weeks to Hun Manet, a 45-year-old military general who speaks fluent English, trained at West Point in the US and received a PhD in economics from the University of Bristol.

“I must sacrifice and relinquish power,” he said in a televised speech.

Hun Manet has given few interviews and little is known about his political views. His education in the US and Britain has raised hopes he might improve Cambodia’s frosty ties with the West. But most observers believe any change will be minimal, as he has emerged in an autocratic system his father and senior officials have spent decades entrenching. Hun Sen, in any case, is expected to retain a leadership position in the ruling party.

Spotlight: Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, pushed through a law to weaken the judiciary this week in a divisive move that caused mass protests, prompted calls for a general strike and raised fears about the future of the country’s democracy.

Netanyahu, who leads the most right-wing government in the country’s history, had initially proposed a sweeping judicial overhaul. But he delayed the proposals in March in the face of protests, strikes, a slump in the polls, plunging foreign investment and unusually blunt criticism from the White House. Instead, he plans to introduce piecemeal changes, presumably hoping this might quieten the opposition.

But the first bill – which prevents the Supreme Court from overturning government decisions and appointments deemed “unreasonable in the extreme” – was met with unflinching public outrage. Thousands of military reservists said they would not report for duty, businesses said they would shut and unions and doctors said they would strike.

Following the vote, Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, promised to keep rallying the nation against the changes.

“This is the destruction of Israeli democracy,” he said. “We will not let them turn Israel into a broken, undemocratic country, which is run by hatred and extremism.”

Supporters of the judicial overhaul believe non-elected judges have too much scope to overturn government decisions. Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition partners have long rallied against court decisions restricting the growth of settlements in the West Bank or overturning laws deemed favourable to the ultra-Orthodox community. The changes may also help Netanyahu in his legal battle against corruption charges.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, said he still wanted to find a compromise, but his far-right coalition partners signalled they would topple the government unless the changes continue. 

The bill this week, which passed 64-0 in the 120-member Knesset after the opposition left the chamber, is facing a challenge in the Supreme Court, which will now have to rule on the validity of a law that aims to neuter it. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "Protests fire up as Netanyahu judiciary bill causes chaos".

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