- A bill that limits the power of the Supreme Court to overturn government decisions
- 19 were arrested as protests broke out across Israel
- Popular protests spread to the army
- The opposition vows to challenge the changes
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament on Monday approved the first judicial reform bill sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the latest settlement effort collapsed and failed to ease a constitutional crisis that has gripped the country for months.
The amendment, which limits the powers of the Supreme Court to annul some government decisions if it deems them “unreasonable” was passed by a majority of 64 to zero after opposition MPs withdrew from the session in protest, some of them chanting: “To shame!”
Demonstrations against the amendment began early in the day with protesters who handcuffed themselves to posts and blocked the road outside parliament by police. By evening, thousands took to the streets across the country, blocking highways and clashing with police. Israeli police said at least 19 people were arrested on Monday.
But the government stood firm. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the legislative package that Netanyahu has floated as needed to bring more balance between branches of government, called Monday’s vote a “first step.”
The amendment is part of broader judicial changes announced by the government in January, shortly after it was sworn in, which it says are needed to resist what it describes as overreach by the Supreme Court which it says has become too political interference.
Critics say the changes will open the door to abuses of power by eliminating effective checks on executive power. The planned changes have led to months of unprecedented nationwide protests and alarmed allies abroad about Israel’s democratic health.
Within minutes of the vote, a political watchdog group and the centrist opposition leader said they would appeal the law in the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu, in televised remarks after sunset as the protests erupted, said he would seek dialogue with the opposition with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement by the end of November.
“We all agree that Israel must remain a strong democracy, continue to protect the individual rights of all, that it will not become a state (Jewish law), and that the courts will remain independent,” said Netanyahu, who was discharged from the hospital in the morning and fitted with a pacemaker.
The crisis has deeply divided Israeli society and seeped into the military, with protest leaders saying thousands of volunteer reservists will not go to serve if the government goes through with the plans and former senior officers warning that Israel’s preparation for war could be in jeopardy.
Protesters who gathered in Jerusalem blocked a highway near Parliament and were cleared by police using asphalt and using water cannons, including one who sprayed a foul-smelling substance.
“It’s a sad day for Israeli democracy… We will resist,” said Inbar Orbaz, 36, speaking to a crowd outside parliament.
In Tel Aviv, horse police tried to disperse a crowd of demonstrators on the main highway, where protesters started small bonfires.
Outside the city, a driver crashed into a small crowd that was blocking a road, injuring three people with minor injuries, police said, adding that the owner of the vehicle was later arrested.
After the law was passed, the White House reiterated its call for Israel’s leaders to work for “as broad a consensus as possible” through political dialogue.
Major stock indexes in Tel Aviv tumbled 2.5% after the Knesset vote and the shekel fell 1% against the dollar.
Opposition leaders vowed to defy the change.
The head of the Histadrut Workers’ Federation, after failing to broker a settlement between the National Religious Coalition and the opposition parties, threatened to declare a general strike if the government followed “unilateral” measures.
A senior member of the opposition, Benny Gantz, promised to roll back the legislation while opposition leader Yair Lapid said, “This government can win the battle, but not the war.”
Additional reporting by Mayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Stephen Scheer, Henriette Chakar, Matt Spetalnick and Rami Ayoub. Editing by Meral Fahmy, Thomas Janowski, Nick McPhee and Rosalba O’Brien
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