Israel PM in parliament for key legal reform vote as protests flare

02:12 PM ALERT 12 words Beijing, China Israel strikes Lebanon after projectile launched: army
Source: Pixabay

Israel’s hard-right government readied Monday to push through parliament a key clause of its judicial reform package that sparked mass protests and US President Joe Biden labelled “divisive.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was back in the Knesset — only a day after undergoing surgery to have a pacemaker installed — as police outside the legislature used water cannon against a crowd of demonstrators.

President Isaac Herzog, who has been trying to broker a compromise after half a year of weekly mass street protests, warned that “we are in a national emergency”.

Critics fear the proposed judicial revamp will undermine Israel’s liberal democracy by removing checks and balances on the executive, while the government argues it needs to curb judicial overreach.

Netanyahu, 73, arrived at the parliament where MPs then started the session for a final vote on a bill that would limit judges’ ability to strike down government decisions they deem not to be “reasonable”.

His coalition government, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, argues that the proposed changes are needed to ensure a better balance of power.

As the crisis looked set to peak, Israel’s traditional bedrock ally Washington reiterated concern about the political turmoil, with Biden urging Israeli leaders to postpone the vote.

“From the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less,” he said in a statement first published by news site Axios and shared with AFP.

“It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus.”

While legislators met inside, protesters booed parliament, beat drums, blew horns and chanted “shame” outside under a burning sun as mounted police tried to disperse them.


– ‘Fighting for democracy’ –


Herzog, just back from a Washington trip, had gone to Netanyahu’s hospital room on Sunday in a last-minute effort to reach a compromise.

Herzog warned that “there are foundations for understandings” but the sides would have to “show responsibility” to close the gap.

Netanyahu had said Sunday afternoon that “we’re continuing our efforts to complete the legislation, and the efforts to do it in agreement” with the opposition.

The government had taken a “cautious path”, said Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the driving force behind the revamp.

“We are not cancelling the reasonableness clause but reducing its use, so that a judge’s personal opinions won’t come at the expense of the people’s desire,” he told parliament at the end of the debate.

“There is no reason to fear this amendment. There are many reasons to see in it as an important step in returning the balance between the government branches,” Levin said.

But opposition leader Yair Lapid said the country was “heading towards a disaster,” and made a fresh appeal to stop the legislative process.

“If you press the button and approve this bill, you won’t be able to call yourselves Israeli patriots any longer,” Lapid said.

Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who has been fighting corruption charges in court, of a conflict of interest, and some protesters have labelled him the “crime minister”.


-‘Gateway to dictatorship’-


“Today, the first law that will begin toppling Israel’s democracy will probably pass,” said Shahaf Kushinsky, 34, a high-tech worker who protested near parliament.

“That will in essence give the government unlimited power… This is the gateway to a dictatorship and that’s why we’re here. We’re fighting for our democracy.”

If approved, the “reasonableness” clause would be the first major component of the reform package to become law.

Other proposed changes include allowing the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.

The protests have drawn support from across the political spectrum and among secular and religious groups, blue-collar and tech sector workers, peace activists and military reservists.

The political battle over the judicial overhaul comes against a backdrop of rising Palestinian-Israeli violence.

One protester opposed to the judicial package, Mor Shamgar, 60, vowed to keep up pressure on the government.

If the reasonableness clause is gone, “they can just legislate whatever they want,” Shamgar told AFP.

“I will not stop protesting and I won’t mind going to jail.”


About the author


Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

Daily Newsletter