Protests rage as Israel passes disputed limits on some Supreme Court powers

  • A bill that limits the power of the Supreme Court to overturn government decisions
  • Political groups, labor union plan to challenge changes
  • Popular protests spread to the army

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament on Monday approved the first judicial reform bill sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the latest settlement effort collapsed and failed to ease a constitutional crisis that has gripped the country for months.

The amendment, which limits the powers of the Supreme Court to annul some government decisions if it deems them “unreasonable,” was passed by a vote of 64 to zero after opposition MPs withdrew from the session in protest, some of them chanting: “To shame!”

Demonstrations against the amendment began early in the day with protesters who handcuffed themselves to posts and blocked the road outside parliament by police.

By evening, demonstrators took to the streets of cities across the country.

The amendment is part of broader judicial changes announced by the government in January, shortly after it was sworn in, prompting months of unprecedented protests across the country and alarming allies abroad about Israel’s democratic health.

But more deadlock looms.

Within minutes of the vote, a political watchdog group and the centrist opposition leader said they would appeal the law in the Supreme Court.

Thousands of protesters who swarmed Jerusalem flooded a highway near parliament, clashing with police who cleared the way by dragging them across the asphalt and using water cannons, including spraying a foul-smelling substance.

The crisis has deeply divided Israeli society and seeped into the military, with protest leaders saying thousands of volunteer reservists will not go to serve if the government goes through with the plans and former senior officers warning that Israel’s preparation for war could be in jeopardy.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of Netanyahu’s package of reforms as needed to bring more balance between the branches of government, appeared undeterred.

“We have taken the first step in the important historical process of reforming the judicial system and restoring the powers that were taken from the government and the Knesset (parliament),” he said in a speech, apparently ignoring repeated calls from Washington for a compromise.

After the law was passed, the White House urged Israel’s leaders to work toward consensus through political dialogue.

“It is unfortunate that the vote took place today with a small majority,” said ministry spokeswoman Karen Jean-Pierre.

economic setback

The turmoil also affected the economy. Major stock indexes in Tel Aviv fell 2.5% after the Knesset vote and the shekel extended its losses against the dollar to around 1%. The head of the Histadrut Workers’ Federation, after failing to broker a settlement between the National Religious Coalition and the opposition parties, threatened to declare a general strike if the government followed “unilateral” measures.

Netanyahu’s coalition is determined to resist what he has described as overreach by the Supreme Court, which he says has become too politically intrusive.

Critics say Monday’s amendment was expedited through parliament and will open the door to abuses of power by removing one of the few effective checks on executive power in a country where there is no formal written constitution.

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“This government can win the battle, but not the war,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid.

A forum of about 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike, and two of Israel’s largest malls, Azrieli (AZRG.TA) and Big (BIG.TA), said stores in their malls would remain closed.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Stephen Scheer, Ari Rabinowitz, Henriette Schkar and Matt Spetalnick. Editing by Meral Fahmy, Thomas Janowski, and Nick McPhee

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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