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Israeli government passes law to limit Supreme Court power, defying mass protests

<i>Reuters</i><br/>Israeli lawmakers on Monday passed a law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions.
Israeli lawmakers on Monday passed a law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions.

By Ivana Kottasová, Richard Allen Greene, Hadas Gold and Amir Tal, CNN

(CNN) — The Israeli parliament on Monday passed a law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions, the first part of a planned judicial overhaul that has sharply divided Israeli society and drawn fierce criticism from the White House.

The controversial bill passed by a vote of 64-0 in the Knesset. All members of the governing coalition voted in favor the bill, while all opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber as the vote was taking place.

Huge crowds of angry protesters gathered outside, attempting to block access to the building. They were met with barbed wire and water cannons and at least 19 were arrested, according to Israel Police.

Thousands of military reservists – including more than 1,100 Air Force officers – said even before the bill passed that they would refuse to volunteer for duty if it did.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said he would file a petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday to block the law and has urged the military reservists not to refuse to serve until the court delivers its ruling.

The so-called reasonableness law takes away the Supreme Court’s power to block government decisions by declaring them unreasonable. Its passing could trigger a constitutional crisis – if the court declares the law itself is unreasonable.

The Movement for Quality Government, an Israeli NGO, filed a petition with the Supreme Court immediately after the vote took place, asking the court to declare the law illegal on the grounds that it changes the basic structure of Israeli democracy, and requesting that it block its implementation until the court has ruled on it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who left hospital on Monday morning after having been fitted with a pacemaker, pushed the bill through despite Israel’s most important ally, the United States, issuing increasingly forceful warnings not to do so.

He later said the passage of the law was a necessary “democratic move” and he was “fulfilling the will of the voter” during an address to the nation. He also urged reservists to not refuse to serve. “The call for refusal harms the security of all citizens of the country,” he said.

In a highly unusual step, the US President Joe Biden weighed in on the policy and warned that rushing the changes through without a broad consensus amounts to an erosion of democratic institutions and could undermine US-Israel relations.

“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,” Biden said in a statement provided to CNN on Sunday.

Biden raised concerns directly with Netanyahu during a phone call last week and then called New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the Oval Office to make clear his stance on the judicial overhaul.

Speaking after the Knesset passed the bill on Monday, the White House said it was “unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.”

The Israeli stock market dropped after the vote, its main index, the TA-35, trading more than 2% lower. The Israeli Shekel was also weaker against the dollar, dropping just under 1%.

No sign of protests stopping

The fierce debate over the planned judicial overhaul has turned into a battle over the soul of the Israeli state. It has pitted a coalition of right-wing and religious groups against the secular, liberal parts of Israeli society and sparked the longest and largest protests in the country’s 75-year history.

The fight is happening against the backdrop of some of the worst violence in many years. The number of Palestinians, militants and civilians, killed in the occupied West Bank by Israeli forces is at its highest in nearly two decades. The same is true of Israelis and foreigners – most of them civilians – killed in Palestinian attacks.

Israel, which has no written constitution and no upper chamber of the parliament, has had a relatively powerful Supreme Court, which supporters of the changes argue is problematic. At the same time, the Supreme Court is the only check on the power of the Knesset and the government, since the executive and legislative branches are always controlled by the same governing coalition.

Netanyahu and his allies call the measures “reforms” and say they are required to rebalance powers between the courts, lawmakers and the government. Other parts of the planned overhaul which are yet to be voted on by the Knesset would give Netanyahu’s coalition more control over the appointment of judges, and would remove independent legal advisers from government ministries.

Opponents of the plan call it a “coup” and say it threatens to turn Israel into a dictatorship by removing the most significant checks on government actions.

Netanyahu was forced to pause the legislative process earlier this year, but resumed it earlier this month. He has argued that the Supreme Court has become an insular, elitist group that does not represent the Israeli people.

But critics say Netanyahu is pushing the overhaul forward in part to protect himself from his own corruption trial, where he faces charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.

Another bill, already voted through in March, makes it more difficult for a sitting prime minister to be declared unfit for office, restricting the reasons to physical or mental incapacity and requiring either the prime minister themselves, or two-thirds of the cabinet, to vote for such a declaration.

Despite his victory on Monday, Netanyahu is likely to face more pressure over the reforms.

The mass protests that have engulfed Israel since the reforms were first announced in January and are unlikely to stop now. After hearing the law has passed, protesters outside the Knesset began marching around, chanting “We will not give up. We will not give up until it’s better here.”

The Israel Bar Association is already preparing a legal challenge to the bill, the lawyers’ group said Sunday. The Bar is also warning it will shut down “as an act of protest against the anti-democratic legislative process,” the statement said. That means the Bar Association would not provide professional services to its members, not that lawyers would go on strike.

The Israel Medical Association said it would go on strike on Tuesday in response to the law passing, its chairman Zion Hagi announced Monday.” The strike will not affect Jerusalem in light of the protests taking place there, the IMA said, and activities such as dialysis and cancer treatments will continue during the strike.

The law “will have serious consequences for the health system, patients and doctors,” the IMA added.

Israel’s umbrella labor union, the Histadrut, warned moments after the government passed the reasonableness bill that if the government continued to legislate unilaterally, there would be serious consequences.

The law still needs to be rubber stamped by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog, a formality under Israel’s political system.

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