Protesters gather with national flags in front of the Israeli parliament (Knesset) in Jerusalem on July 23, 2023.
Hazem Bader | Afp | fake images
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite mass 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 go ahead with the plan, which has strained the country’s delicate social ties, shaken the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly raised concerns among its closest ally, the United States.
The reform calls for sweeping changes aimed at restricting 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.
The protesters, who come from a broad swath of Israeli society, see the reform in general as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances by Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his associates.
In Monday’s vote, lawmakers approved a measure that prevents judges from overturning government decisions on the grounds that they are “unreasonable.”
With the opposition out of the hall, the measure passed by a 64-0 margin.
Later, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken “the first step in an important historic process” to reform the judiciary.
More mass protests are now expected, and the Movement for Quality Government, a civil society group, immediately announced that 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 its determination to ram its fringe ideology down the throats of millions of citizens.”
“No one can predict the extent of the damage and the social upheaval that will follow the passage of the legislation,” he said.
Earlier, protesters, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government’s plan, blocked a road leading to parliament, and large chain shopping malls and some gas stations closed their doors in protest.
Adding further to the pressure on Netanyahu, thousands of military reservists have declared their refusal to serve under a government taking steps they believe set the country on a path toward dictatorship. Those moves have sparked fears that the readiness of the military could be compromised.
Before Monday’s vote, opposition leader Yair Lapid had declared: “We are headed for disaster.”
Israeli Prime Minister Banjamin Netanyahu watches as Israeli lawmakers vote on a bill that would limit some of the power of the Supreme Court, at the plenary session of the Knesset in Jerusalem on July 24, 2023.
Amir Cohen | Reuters
The vote came just 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 closely watched in Washington. The Biden administration has frequently spoken out against the Netanyahu government and his reform plan. In a statement to the Axios news site on Sunday night, President Joe Biden warned against going ahead with the divisive legal changes.
“Given the variety of threats and challenges facing Israel right now, there is no point in Israeli leaders rushing this – the focus should be on bringing people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.
Biden has also criticized the government’s moves to deepen Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
The massive and sustained protests for democracy have avoided mentioning Israel’s 56-year occupation of the lands Palestinians seek for their long-awaited independent state, fearing the issue could alienate supporters. But critics describe this rule over another people as a major stain on Israel’s claim to be a liberal democracy and accuse the protesters of harboring a major blind spot in their struggle.
As lawmakers debated, tens of thousands of people gathered in mass rallies for and against the plan.
Protesters beating drums and honking their horns blocked a road leading to Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, and police used water cannons to drive them back. The protest movement said one of its leaders was arrested.
“The State of Israel is facing destruction and ruin being wrought on it by a gang of extremists and kooks. We must go up to Jerusalem today!” an offshoot of the protest movement called out protesters on social media.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu supporters packed into downtown Tel Aviv, normally the scene of anti-government protests.
Despite attempts to project business as usual, Netanyahu’s schedule was disrupted by his hospitalization, with a cabinet meeting and travel postponed. His doctors said on Sunday that the procedure had gone smoothly and the prime minister said in a brief video statement from the hospital on Sunday night that he was feeling fine.
Netanyahu halted the reform in March after intense pressure from protesters and labor strikes that halted outbound flights and shut down parts of the economy. After compromise talks failed last month, he said his government was pushing reform.