Israeli parliament gives initial approval to court overhaul bill

Anti-government protesters are trying to stop a bill from passing that would limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court.

An aerial view shows people holding a sign in Hebrew which reads "stop the legislation now to prevent a civil war" as they take part in a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's judicial overhaul
An aerial view shows people holding a sign in Hebrew that reads, 'Stop the legislation now to prevent a civil war,' as they take part in a demonstration against a proposed judicial overhaul in Jerusalem on July 10 [Ilan Rosenberg/Reuters]

Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, has given its first approval to a bill that would limit the oversight powers of the country’s Supreme Court, furthering a controversial judicial overhaul in the country.

The vote was 64 to 56 in favour of the limits, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition overpowering the opposition, which warned that the bill could erode the government’s system of checks and balances.

Anti-government protesters were forcibly dragged out of the building ahead of the vote, which stretched from Monday into the early hours of Tuesday. They had been sitting on the floor inside the building on Monday when they were removed by parliament security.

A statement from the Knesset Spokesperson’s Office was later quoted by the Times of Israel as saying that “a police complaint had been against the demonstrators over allegations that they had sought to harm public order and the democratic process”.

The protesters are part of a wider opposition movement to Netanyahu’s attempt to weaken the power of the judiciary, which has led to months of demonstrations and a political crisis.

The bill must still pass two more votes before it can be written into law. But with 64 of the parliament’s 120 seats, Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition seems poised for success, with protests likely to intensify should that happen.

The new bill seeks a curb on the Supreme Court’s power to void decisions made by the government, ministers and elected officials by ruling them unreasonable.

Critics argue that such a law invites corruption and abuses of power. Proponents say it will facilitate effective governance by curbing court intervention.

“It is not the end of democracy, it strengthens democracy,” Netanyahu said in a video statement released at sundown as the Knesset debated the bill.

“Even after the amendment, court independence and civil rights in Israel will not be harmed in any way. The court will continue to oversee the legality of government action and appointments,” Netanyahu said.

His statement did little to calm opponents.

The sound of protesters rallying outside the Supreme Court before marching to parliament could be heard loud and clear at the nearby Bank of Israel, after the bank’s Governor Amir Yaron urged the government to seek broad agreements over legislation of judicial reforms that would safeguard institutional independence.

“Continued uncertainty is liable to have notable economic costs,” Yaron told reporters, citing an excess depreciation of the shekel and underperformance of Israel’s stock market.

Netanyahu – who is on trial on graft charges he denies – has played down the economic fallout from the campaign. On Sunday he signalled impatience with the demonstrations that have flared anew while protesters promised nationwide disruptions on Tuesday should the bill pass a first vote.

Divisions over Netanyahu’s overhaul have cut deep through Israeli society. He had paused it for compromise talks with the opposition hosted by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, but that collapsed in June and the coalition restarted legislation.

Herzog called on the sides to resume talks in order to resolve “the fundamental issues that are tearing us apart”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies