April 18. 2024. 12:44

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Netanyahu’s government takes significant step towards judicial overhaul

Some 90,000 Israelis protested outside parliament on Monday as prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government took the first significant step towards implementing a judicial overhaul which opponents claim marks the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy.

The Knesset’s constitution, law and justice committee voted in favour of a bill designed to provide the ruling coalition with a majority on the judges’ selection committee and to strip the high court of any power to strike down key laws.

Twenty opposition members were ejected from the raucous committee meeting after singing the Israeli song I Have No Other Country and chanting “shame! shame!”

Some employers – many of them in the high-tech sector – allowed their workers to observe a one-day strike in order to join the Jerusalem demonstration and the dozens of smaller protests held throughout the country.

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Right-wing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for control of judicial appointments and to weaken the supreme court’s power has triggered angry protests.

“They hear our cry. They hear the strong voice of truth,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told the crowd, many carrying the blue and white Israeli flag, outside the Knesset. “They hear it and they’re afraid.”

Mr Netanyahu says the current system, under which laws passed by an elected parliament can be overturned by the supreme court, is undemocratic, and the shifting of power away from the judiciary will strengthen democracy.

The government’s move has come at a time when Mr Netanyahu is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. He denies all the charges, claiming he is the victim of a witch hunt by the left, the judiciary, the media and law enforcement agencies to oust him from power.

The opposition claims that Mr Netanyahu aims to weaken the judiciary and appoint a new attorney general who would cancel the proceedings against him.

On Sunday night President Yitzhak Herzog, in a special televised address to the nation, warned that the country was on the verge of constitutional and social collapse. He urged the coalition to delay the contentious plan to overhaul the judicial system and instead seek a compromise with its political opponents. The role of president in Israel is traditionally ceremonial, and such a direct Involvement in a contentious political debate was unprecedented.

Justice minister Yariv Levin, who has fast-tracked the reform plan, agreed to put back the vote in the Knesset plenum on the first reading of the bill by a week, saying he was open to dialogue but would not delay the legislation.

Opposition leaders said they supported the president’s call for dialogue but only if the government agreed to put the legislation on hold while talks took place.

Mr Netanyahu accused opposition leaders of “deliberately dragging the country down into anarchy”.

In a video message on Monday he said the opposition was “running amok” inside the Knesset, and criticised the “leftist demonstration” where he said he was being called a traitor.

Far-right national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir called for the police to investigate Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai for incitement after Mr Huldai warned that “dictatorial countries do not return to democracy except through bloodshed”.