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Israeli government votes to limit Supreme Court powers amid mass protests

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Israeli government votes to limit Supreme Court powers amid mass protests

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JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers voted Monday to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government actions, delivering a long-sought goal of the country’s ascendant right-wing movement. The measure was pushed through despite months of civil unrest, international condemnations and pleas from business and security leaders to seek consensus in a deeply divided society on the verge of chaos.

Lawmakers methodically voted down 140 amendments from the opposition, just as they had shouldered through more than 1,000 objections in a week of preliminary maneuvering and more than six months of nationwide protests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — just hours after leaving the hospital where he had an emergency pacemaker implanted — sat calmly through the voting as shouts of derision rained around him, occasionally leaving for consultations. He took several phone calls, including from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was trying to broker a last-minute compromise.

But in a dramatic parliamentary session, with shouts of “Shame!” chanted by demonstrators outside the Knesset and by opposition members inside, the prime minister’s coalition of right-wing, religiously conservative and ultranationalist parties stood steadfast.

Shortly before 4 p.m. local time, after opposition members had left the chamber in protest, government loyalists voted 64-0 in the 120-seat body to change Israel’s Basic Law, stripping the Supreme Court of some of its powers of judicial review. It was a first victory in a more expansive plan to rein in the judiciary, which has long been a thorn in the side of Israel’s right wing.

What to know about Israel’s protests and judicial overhaul plan

“The courts will continue to be independent, and no side will take it over,” Netanyahu said in an address to the nation Monday evening, adding that he was open to compromise on other parts of the judicial overhaul.

The prime minister and some of his allies signaled that the vote was necessary to appease his most extreme coalition partners and that there were no imminent plans to push through the rest of the legislative package. But other coalition partners said they were just getting started.

“We will, God willing, responsibly continue to pass these laws,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich told reporters outside the Knesset after final passage of the first bill.

The mixed messaging highlighted concerns that Netanyahu, beholden to Smotrich and others for his narrow majority and beset by health concerns, is not in control of events, as the country is rocked by domestic instability and a resurgence of violence across the occupied West Bank.

“We have no prime minister,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said in a televised statement. “Netanyahu has become the doll of messianic extremists.”

The effort to weaken the judiciary has split the country since the proposal was launched unexpectedly just days after Netanyahu’s new right-wing government took office in late December. Yariv Levin, the justice minister, introduced a package of Knesset bills that would give the ruling parties more power to override Supreme Court decisions and select judges.

The package included legislation that would stop the Supreme Court from blocking politicians convicted of crimes from serving in top government jobs under the judicial standard of “reasonableness.” That authority was stripped from the court in Monday’s vote.

Without a written constitution, the courts have used the reasonableness doctrine to block certain decisions and appointments. Earlier this year, in a case that infuriated conservatives, the court forced Netanyahu to fire a key political ally — ultra-Orthodox party leader Aryeh Deri — from his twin appointments as health and interior minister. Deri was convicted of tax fraud in 2021.

Critics said Netanyahu could now not only reappoint Deri but also fire Israel’s independent attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who has angered coalition members by not prosecuting people who have demonstrated at the homes of government ministers.

In allowing the measure to proceed, Netanyahu brushed past a remarkable and growing chorus of entreaties from business and security leaders, including a rebuke late Sunday from President Biden, who told Israeli media, “It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this.”

After the vote Monday, the White House reiterated its disapproval: “As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in statement. “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.”

Across Israeli society on Monday, the fallout was fast and far-reaching.

More than 10,000 military reserve pilots, cyber experts and other service members pledged to skip their training duties if the coalition pushed the legislation through. Netanyahu was scheduled to meet after the vote with the army’s chief of staff amid warnings from top generals that Israel’s defensive readiness could be impaired if enough reservists follow through on the threat.

In judicial overhaul protests, Israel’s soldiers face off against Netanyahu

The country’s largest labor federation, whose own compromise proposal was rejected on Sunday, has said it may call a general strike — a move that paralyzed Israel in late March and forced Netanyahu to temporarily pause the judicial overhaul.

Bankers said deposits and investments had already begun to flee the country. The shekel and the Tel Aviv stock exchange plummeted.

High-tech leaders warned that Israel’s reputation as an open and innovative start-up incubator was at risk. The Israel Business Forum, a federation of 150 of the country’s largest companies, shuttered malls, law firms and gas stations.

Several advocacy groups said they were preparing to challenge the move in a petition to the Supreme Court, though it was unclear what powers the court now has to review the challenge to its authority. Scholars warned of a protracted legal crisis without precedent in Israeli history.

Hopes for a last-minute deal rose and fell several times throughout the day. Herzog — who has warned that Israel is at risk of “civil war” — met with Netanyahu at the hospital after returning late Sunday from a visit to Washington. Netanyahu also talked to Lapid on Monday, but the opposition leader announced shortly before voting began that compromise talks had collapsed.

Organizers of demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets week after week since January — a grass-roots spectrum of veterans, academics, tech workers and doctors — said passing the bill would unleash even greater fury.

Protesters, some of whom have been camping in the July heat of central Jerusalem for days, poured into the parks and plazas around the Knesset after Monday’s vote, joined by throngs getting off trains from Tel Aviv.

Police used water cannons and horse patrols to disperse crowds that tried to block roads into the parliament compound throughout the day. They dragged demonstrators out of roadways, including military veterans and reservists who linked arms as they lay on the hot pavement.

What to know about Israel’s protests and judicial overhaul plan

More than 2,000 demonstrators marched along a Jerusalem highway at rush hour, according to media reports. By nightfall, crowds had gathered in Tel Aviv, the center of the protest movement, and other cities.

Conservatives contend that Monday’s change was crucial to reining in a judiciary that has usurped parliamentary authority and is hopelessly biased toward Israel’s leftist elite. Critics say it’s a power grab that would gut the long-standing balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches.

The division reflects a widening gap in Israelis’ view of their country and vision for its future.

For the ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties that gave Netanyahu his four-seat majority in the Knesset — bringing him back to power after a year and a half on the sidelines — the courts have been a barrier to their long-standing ambition of centering religious conservatism in public spaces and government policy. The court has limited draft exemptions for Yeshiva students, for example, and been a check on the confiscation of land in the West Bank, where some cabinet members are pushing for de facto annexation.

For Israel’s more liberal residents in the tech and cultural hubs along the Mediterranean coast, the courts have been one of the few counterweights to the growing power of the right wing. Reducing judicial authority, they say, risks putting Israel on the path to autocracy and even theocracy, with religious leaders dictating more aspects of civic life.

Nadav Argaman, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet security agency until 2021, lamented that Netanyahu had been “captured by the hands of a coalition that has lost touch with the people.”

“We will fight with all the tools at our disposal,” he told demonstrators in Jerusalem.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Miriam Berger reported from Washington.

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