Israel’s parliament passes first reading of Bill that will significantly weaken judiciary

Huge crowd carrying Israeli flags protests outside parliament

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament, early on Tuesday morning passed 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.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government has advanced a plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, defying a mass uproar among Israelis and calls for restraint from the United States.

A vote early on Tuesday marked only preliminary approval for the plan. But it raised the stakes in a battle that drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets, sparked criticism from influential sectors of society and widened the rifts in an already polarised country.

The vote gave initial approval to a plan that would give Mr Netanyahu’s coalition more power over who becomes a judge.


It came after more than seven hours of debate that dragged on past midnight.

Mr Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-religious and ultra-nationalist legislators, say the plan is meant to fix a system that has given the courts and government legal advisers too much say in how legislation is crafted and decisions are made.

Critics say it will upend the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has a conflict of interest.

Simcha Rothman, a far-right legislator leading the legislative initiative, presented the proposal to the Knesset during a stormy debate.

Several opposition legislators were escorted out of the hall by security officials for screaming at him, while a spectator was carried away by guards from the viewing gallery after smashing the protective glass in anger.

The stand-off has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide among Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.

“We are fighting for our children’s future, for our country’s future. We don’t intend to give up,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told a meeting of his party in the Knesset as protesters massed outside.

Small groups demonstrated outside the homes of some legislators, preventing one member of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party from taking her special-needs daughter to school.

Mr Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people.

He showed no sign of backing down before the vote despite the pressure, but left the door open for dialogue on the planned changes.

The vote on part of the legislation is the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition’s determination to forge ahead and is seen by many as an act of bad faith.

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 Mr 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.

The head of the Israeli 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.

Mr 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. - Additional reporting AP

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem