Israeli parliament passes divisive law weakening Supreme Court

Opposition walks out of Knesset session, protests to continue against judicial overhaul and watchdog group plans appeal to high court.

The Israeli parliament, or Knesset, has passed a bill that would overhaul the judiciary and limit its powers despite mass protests from the opposition.

Last minute talks to find a compromise failed to stop the far-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, from pushing ahead with the vote.

The third and final vote on the bill passed 64-0 after a volatile session. The opposition boycotted it in protest and stormed out of the chamber after chanting “shame”.

The law, part of a wider effort to overhaul the judiciary, prevents the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions.

Its supporters say the current “reasonability” standard gives unelected judges excessive powers over decision-making by elected officials. But critics of the government says it removes a key element of the court’s oversight powers and opens the way for corruption and improper appointments.

Mass protests against the bill continued on Monday, after thousands of people marched from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem to demonstrate their opposition to the government’s proposals.

According to the media, at least 34 demonstrators were detained across the country on Monday evening and several people were injured by the use of water cannon.

There were clashes between police and demonstrators in several towns. According to reports, opponents of the judicial reform blocked several roads in the country. In Tel Aviv, hundreds marched on a central highway in the evening.

Ofer Kassif, an opposition Knesset member, told Al Jazeera that the current government is a “fascist one”.

“For more than 50 years, Israel has been engaging in an ongoing military dictatorship in the occupied Palestinian territories,” Kassif said from West Jerusalem.

There can be no democracy that engages in a military occupation and currently there is a “penetration of the occupation system culture” into Israel, he argued.

“And now Israel is following this law, [which] is just the beginning. Other laws are expected [to pass] around the corner, and those are going to turn Israel into a fully fledged fascist dictatorship in which the most fanatic and zealous components are in power,” Kassif said.

The massive, sustained protests against the judicial legislation have largely shunned mention of Israel’s 56-year occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and besiegement of the Gaza Strip, fearing the issue might alienate their supporters. But critics portray this rule over another people as a major stain on Israel’s claim to be a liberal democracy and accuse the protesters of harbouring a significant blind spot in their struggle.

After the vote, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken a “first step in an important historic process” of overhauling the judiciary.

Meanwhile, an Israeli political watchdog group said it would file a Supreme Court appeal against the new law. The Movement for Quality Government in Israel said it would argue that the amendment was a de-facto elimination of the judicial branch and should be overturned by the court.

More mass protests were expected after the vote.

Earlier, demonstrators, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government’s plan, blocked a road leading to parliament, and big mall chains and some petrol stations closed in protest.

Further ratcheting up the pressure on Netanyahu, thousands of military reservists have declared their refusal to serve under a government taking steps that they see as setting the country on a path to dictatorship. Those moves have prompted fears that the military’s preparedness could be compromised.

“These are dangerous cracks,” military chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi wrote in a letter to soldiers on Sunday that was meant to address the tensions. “If we will not be a strong and cohesive military, if the best do not serve in the IDF [Israeli army], we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”

The vote came only hours after Netanyahu was released from the hospital, where he had a pacemaker implanted. His sudden hospitalisation added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events, which were watched closely in Washington.

Netanyahu has described parliament’s approval of the law as a “necessary democratic step”.

This would enable the elected leadership to govern in the interest of the majority of citizens, Netanyahu said in a speech on Monday evening.

The fulfilment of the will of the voters is “the essence of democracy” – and not its end, he said.

According to surveys, however, only a quarter of all Israelis were in favour of implementing the judicial reform.

US President Joe Biden’s administration has frequently spoken out against Netanyahu’s government and its overhaul plan. In a statement to the news site Axios late on Sunday, Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes that were sparking so much division.

“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,” he told the site.

Press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Monday Biden has not given up on his goal of a broader consensus.

“It is unfortunate that the vote took place today with the slimmest possible majority,” she told reporters.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies