Controversial judicial law passes first vote in Israeli Knesset

Bill that weakens Supreme Court passes first reading, alongside a bill that would protect PM from removal, and another that would allow more settlements in northern Israel.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the floor the Knesset
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the floor the Knesset, Israel's parliament, as his coalition pressed ahead with a contentious plan to change the country's judicial system on March 13 [Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo]

The Israeli parliament has advanced a bill that would allow it to overrule Supreme Court rulings and enact laws that had been struck down, despite months of protests against it.

The Knesset took until the early hours of Tuesday morning to pass the first reading of the bill, which has been one of the main priorities of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his governing coalition of far-right and ultra-Orthodox religious parties.

Late on Monday night, in another win for Netanyahu, the parliament also advanced a bill that would make it harder to remove the prime minister over the corruption charges that still hang over him.

The bill would allow the parliament to declare a prime minister unfit to rule only for physical or mental reasons and would replace current law that opens the door for a leader to be removed under other circumstances.

Another bill that passed the first reading would allow more settlements in the northern occupied West Bank, which would lead to the legalisation of settlement outposts considered illegal even under Israeli law.

The vote comes only weeks after Israeli settlers rampaged through a Palestinian town last month, killing one man and setting fire to dozens of homes and cars.

Settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are already considered illegal under international law.

The bills voted on overnight require additional votes before being enshrined into law.

The steps were the latest in a series of moves by Netanyahu’s coalition to modify Israel’s legal system.

The prime minister and his allies say the effort is aimed at reining in an activist court.

Critics say the drive would upend the country’s checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority.

Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and religious coalition allies have pledged to plough ahead with the legal changes despite demonstrations by tens of thousands of Israeli protesters over the past two months.

Business leaders, legal experts and retired military leaders have joined the protests, and Israeli reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the change passes.

The new bill would require approval by three-quarters of the government, and could be overridden by the prime minister.

The proposed change to the rules overseeing the removal of a prime minister is of personal importance to Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year after Israel’s fifth election in under four years.

He is on trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, and denies the allegations.

The proceedings have dragged on for nearly three years.

Good governance groups and other critics have called on the country’s attorney general to deem Netanyahu unfit for office.

Speaking to members of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at the Israeli media, saying they are broadcasting a “never-ending tsunami of fake news” against him.

He reiterated his claim that the legal changes will strengthen Israeli democracy.

Opposition lawmaker Orna Barbivai said the bill was “a disgrace, which says the prime minister is above the law”.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up some 20 percent of the population, have been largely absent from the protests, in part because they suffer from discrimination in Israel and because of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and blockaded Gaza Strip.

At least 70 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis this year under Israel’s new government, many of them during Israeli military raids.

It brings up the total of Palestinians killed in the occupied West Bank over the past year to more than 220.

More than 40 Israelis and foreign nationals have been killed in attacks by Palestinians during the same period.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies