Israeli parliament approves key part of judicial overhaul amid protests

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Yuval Noah Harari on the threat to democracy in Israel

Yuval Noah Harari on the threat to democracy in Israel 02:34

Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite massive protests that have exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society.

The vote came after a stormy session in which opposition lawmakers chanted “shame” and then stormed out of the chamber.

It reflected the determination of Netanyahu and his far-right allies to move ahead with the plan, which has tested the delicate social ties that bind the country, rattled the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly drawn concern from its closest ally, the United States.

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected. Netanyahu and his allies say the changes are needed to curb the powers of unelected judges.

Protesters, who come from a wide swath of Israeli society, see the overhaul in general as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption charges — and his partners.

Members of Israel’s security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance of the parliament (Knesset) in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023, amid a months-long wave of protests against the government’s planned judicial overhaul. MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP via Getty Images

In Monday’s vote, lawmakers approved a measure that prevents judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.” With the opposition out of the hall, the measure passed by a 64-0 margin.

After, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken “first step in an important historic process” of overhauling the judiciary.

More mass protests are now expected, and the Movement for Quality Government, a civil society group, immediately announced it would challenge the new law in the Supreme Court.

The grassroots protest movement condemned the vote, saying Netanyahu’s “government of extremists is showing their determination to jam their fringe ideology down the throats of millions of citizens.”

“No one can predict the extent of damage and social upheaval that will follow the passage of the legislation,” it said.

Earlier, demonstrators, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government’s plan, blocked a road leading up to the parliament, and big mall chains and some gas stations shuttered their doors in protest.

Protesters were banging on drums and blowing horn, and police used water cannons to push them back. At least six protesters were arrested, the Reuters news agency reported.

The vote came only hours after Netanyahu was released from the hospital, where he had a pacemaker implanted.

His sudden hospitalization added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events, which were watched closely in Washington. The Biden administration has frequently spoken out against Netanyahu’s government and its overhaul plan. In a statement to the news site Axios late Sunday, President Joe Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes that were sparking so much division.

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this – the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.

Biden has also been critical of the government’s steps to deepen Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

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