Protests erupted as Israel passed restrictions on some of the Supreme Court’s powers

  • The bill restricts the Supreme Court’s power to overturn government decisions
  • 19 people were arrested as protests broke out across Israel
  • People’s protests spread to the military
  • Opposition parties vow to challenge the changes

JERUSALEM, July 24 (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament on Monday approved the first judicial overhaul bill sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after months of failed reconciliation efforts to end the country’s constitutional crisis broke down.

The amendment, which limits the Supreme Court’s powers to overturn certain government decisions deemed “unfair”, was passed by a 64-0 vote after opposition lawmakers walked out of the session in protest, some of them “for shame!”

Demonstrations against the amendment began in the early hours of the morning, with police dragging away chained protesters who blocked the road outside parliament. By evening, thousands had taken 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 was determined. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the legislative package put forward by Netanyahu to create greater balance among the branches of government, said Monday’s vote was a “first step.”

The amendment is part of wider judicial changes announced by the government in January, soon after it took office, to push back against what it says is an overreach by the Supreme Court.

Critics say the changes open the door to abuse of power by removing effective checks on the executive’s authority. The planned changes have sparked months of unprecedented nationwide protests and fueled concern among allies abroad about Israel’s democratic health.

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Within minutes of the vote, a political watchdog and the centrist opposition leader said they would appeal the law to the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu said after sunset, as protests intensified, that he wanted dialogue with the opposition with the aim of reaching an all-inclusive deal by the end of November.

“Israel must be a strong democracy, it must continue to protect individual rights for all, it (Jewish law) will not become a state, and the courts will be independent,” Netanyahu said, as he was released from hospital on a pacemaker in the morning.

The crisis has deeply divided Israeli society and seeped into the military, with opposition leaders saying thousands of volunteer workers will not return to work if the government’s plans continue and former top officials warning that Israel’s combat readiness could be at risk.

Protesters gathered in Jerusalem blocked a highway near the parliament, and police dispersed them using water cannons, including spraying them with a foul-smelling substance, dragging them across the asphalt.

“It’s a sad day for Israeli democracy… We’re going to fight back,” Inbar Orpas, 36, told a crowd outside parliament.

In Tel Aviv, police on horseback tried to disperse a crowd on a main highway where protesters lit small fires.

Outside the city, a driver rammed into a small crowd blocking a road, injuring three people, and the owner of the car was later arrested, police said.

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After the legislation was passed, the White House reiterated its call for Israel’s leaders to work toward “the broadest possible consensus” through political dialogue.

Tel Aviv’s main stock indexes fell as much as 2.5% after the vote in the Knesset and the shekel fell 1% against the dollar.

Opposition leaders vowed to challenge the change.

The head of the Histadrut labor federation threatened to declare a general strike if the government continued its “unilateral” measures after failing to broker a compromise between the religious-nationalist alliance and the opposition.

Benny Gantz, a senior member of the opposition, vowed to withdraw the law, while opposition leader Yair Lapid said: “This government can win the war, but not the war.”

Additional reporting by Mayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Steven Scheer, Henriette Sacker, Matt Spetalnik and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mirel Fahmy, Tomasz Janowski, Nick McGhee and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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