Israel‘s parliament on Monday voted to push ahead with a contested overhaul of the country’s judicial system championed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that has sparked mass protests.
Opposition in parliament vowed to “fight for the soul of the nation” while tens of thousands of Israelis gathered in the streets outside trumpeting their objection. Lawmakers argued late into the night before the proposed changes were approved in a first reading.
“A great night and a great day,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter after the preliminary vote.
Netanyahu addressed the concerns that other nations had regarding his proposed judicial reform in a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations over the weekend.
“Israel is a democracy and will remain a democracy with majority rule and proper safeguards for civil liberties,” Netanyahu stated. “All democracies should respect the will of other free people, just as we respect their democratic decisions.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations:
"In case you haven't noticed, Israel is in the midst of a little thing on judicial reform.
I'd like to speak to you on it at length and to tell you why you shouldn't worry. pic.twitter.com/q58s9DPCeU
— Prime Minister of Israel (@IsraeliPM) February 19, 2023
Wielding 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Netanyahu looked likely to win eventual ratification for the two revisions on the agenda – one increasing the government’s sway in choosing judges and the other setting limits to the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation.
Polls have found that most Israelis want the reforms slowed to allow for dialogue with critics – or shelved altogether.
The shekel was 1% weaker versus the dollar. Seeing instability from the reform feud, many economists, and leaders from high-tech and banking have warned of investor and capital flight from Israel. But a key coalition figure brushed this off.
“There is no link between the justice system reforms and any blow to Israel‘s economy,” said Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni and head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “Any attempt at linkage is politicized.”
Opposition lawmakers protested Gafni’s statement, calling the committee “a circus”.
Earlier in the day protesters posted online videos of themselves trying to prevent lawmakers from Netanyahu’s coalition leaving for the Knesset. Police said eight people were arrested for disorderly conduct and traffic was rerouted after demonstrators blocked some roads.
“Demonstrators who talk about democracy are themselves bringing about the end of democracy when they deny elected delegates the fundamental right in a democracy – to vote,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
The government says the reforms are designed to end overreach into politics by an unrepresentative Supreme Court. Critics say that the proposed legal changes will hurt Israel‘s democratic checks and balances, foster corruption, and bring diplomatic isolation.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted that demonstrations would mount “in the fight for the soul of the nation”.
Israel‘s head of state, President Isaac Herzog, has repeatedly urged the government and opposition to hold compromise talks. But while both sides have voiced willingness, they disagree on terms.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters. Additions and edits for FISM News by Michael Cardinal.