Protesters wave the Israeli flag on July 24, 2023, during demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial reform.
Menachem Kahana | Afp | fake images
Israel’s parliament began a final vote Monday on contested changes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to the judiciary as last-minute talks continued to ease one of the country’s worst political crises sparked by his plans.
President Isaac Herzog, who has called the standoff “a national emergency,” was still trying to reach a compromise over government court plans that have sparked unprecedented protests across the country, a person familiar with the matter said.
Police used a water cannon to disperse protesters opposing Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition’s judicial campaign, and officers dragged out protesters who had chained themselves to poles and blocked the road in front of parliament.
The chances of reaching a compromise looked slim when lawmakers began voting.
“Agreements that safeguard Israel’s democracy cannot be reached with this government,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told Israeli television channels in the Knesset minutes before the hour-long vote was to begin.
With banks and businesses joining the protest, pressure mounted on Netanyahu, who was released from hospital Monday morning after a two-night stay during which he was fitted with a pacemaker.
Washington has urged Netanyahu, on the one hand, to compromise with the opposition, while his hardline coalition partners are pushing for the legislation to go ahead with more judicial changes to follow.
The crisis has spread to the army. Protest leaders say thousands of volunteer reservists will not report for duty if the government goes ahead with plans and top brass warn Israel’s readiness for war could be at risk.
Still, with a comfortable majority in parliament, Netanyahu’s coalition seemed poised to win a vote on a bill limiting the Supreme Court’s powers to overturn decisions made by governments and ministers.
“We are headed for a disaster,” Lapid told lawmakers during the stormy debate. “If you vote for this bill, you will weaken the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces.”
It would be the first written change to the law in a package that critics fear is aimed at curbing judicial independence, but that Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, insists is necessary for balance between branches of government.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has been pushing the changes, defended the bill, which would amend a law that would allow the Supreme Court to overturn decisions it deems “unreasonable.”
“There is no reason to fear this amendment. There are many reasons to view it as an important step toward restoring the balance between branches of government while respecting voter choice,” Levin said.
Netanyahu’s coalition is determined to reject what it describes as overreach by a Supreme Court that it says has become too politically interventionist.
Critics say Monday’s amendment was rushed through parliament and will open the door to abuses of power by removing one of the few effective checks on executive authority in a country without a formal written constitution.
The government announced its court plans in January, shortly after being sworn in, raising concerns among allies abroad about Israel’s democratic health and denting the economy.
The shekel has weakened by around 8% since then.
Israel’s two largest banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, said they would allow workers to demonstrate on Monday without losing wages.
A forum of some 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike and Azrieli and Big, two of Israel’s largest malls, said stores in their malls would remain closed.