February 21. 2024. 7:28

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Israel’s parliament set to pass first reading of bill that will significantly weaken the judiciary

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Monday night was set to pass the first reading of a controversial bill that will significantly weaken the judiciary in a move opponents claim will undermine Israeli democracy, effectively ending the country’s constitutional checks and balances.

The changes will bar the high court of justice from having oversight over key laws and will change the composition of the judges’ selection committee, giving the government a majority of at least five out of its nine members.

As the Knesset convened a huge crowd carrying Israeli flags – estimated up to 100,000 – protested outside the building, warning that prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, made up entirely of right-wing and religious parties, was turning Israel into Hungary or Poland.

Smaller protests were held at scores of locations across the country, and highways were blocked as the divisive legislation continues to tear the country apart.

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The head of the Israel Security Agency Shin Bet urged leaders from both sides to calm the atmosphere, warning that Israel was reaching “boiling point”.

Mr Netanyahu accused the protest leaders of trampling democracy by not allowing Israel’s elected representatives to carry out their policy. “They do not accept the outcome of the election, they do not accept the majority’s decision, they do not condemn calls to kill the prime minister and his family, they block roads and call for civil disobedience, they call without shame for a civil war and for blood in the streets, they threaten Knesset members aggressively,” he said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Israel has taken the first step towards becoming a non-democratic state. “There was no real discussion about the terrible damage [this legislation] would cause to the economy and to the livelihood of each of us, nor about the danger to [Israel’s] security, or to the fact that it is tearing the people of Israel apart,” he said.

For years the right in Israel has complained that unelected liberal judges have too much influence. Shifting power from the judicial branch to the parliament was a key issue in the November election which brought Mr Netanyahu back to power for a sixth term as prime minister.

The new government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, has pushed through the judicial overhaul at break-neck speed. President Yitzhak Herzog urged dialogue to avert a constitutional crisis and the possibility of violence, but so far the call has fallen on deaf ears.

The opposition agreed to talks but only if the legislation was put on hold, something the government refused to do.

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.