Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday defended the parliamentary vote as “necessary” for a key provision in the government’s controversial judicial reform package, despite mass protests and international concern.
Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition allies passed the bill earlier on Monday after a turbulent parliamentary session that saw opposition lawmakers boycott the decisive vote with some shouting “shame, shame”.
Critics allege the judicial reform could pave the way for a more authoritarian government by removing checks and balances from the Israeli executive.
The bill passed with 64 votes in a 120-seat chamber. It aims to limit the Supreme Court’s power to overrule government decisions that judges consider “unreasonable”.
The prime minister justified the decision to push for the vote as a “necessary democratic step”.
“We have passed the rationality amendment so that the elected government can conduct policy consistent with the decisions of the majority of the country’s citizens,” he said in a televised address.
Israel’s traditional platform ally Washington has repeatedly expressed concern about political instability and described Monday’s vote as “unfortunate”.
Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition government, which includes far-right and far-right Orthodox Jewish parties, argues that the proposed changes are necessary to ensure a better balance of power.
The reform package has sparked one of the largest protest movements in Israeli history since it was announced by the government in January.
The Histadrut trade union union has threatened a nationwide strike in response to the parliamentary vote, calling on the government to resume talks with the opposition.
Histadrut President Arnon Bar-David said in a statement: “Any progress on unilateral reform will have serious consequences.”
A demonstration organized by Histadrut in March within hours prompted Netanyahu to halt the legislative process, paving the way for inter-party talks that eventually fell apart.
– ‘So sad’ –
Protesters gathered all day outside parliament, where they blew trumpets, beat drums and waved Israeli flags.
Protests continued Monday night in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial hubs, while protesters blocked roads.
Police used water cannons and mounted officers were deployed to fight the crowd.
“I think there will be change or compromise, but deep down I know this is going to happen and it’s really sad,” protester Danny Akerman, 52, told AFP after the vote.
“We need to keep protesting, keep applying pressure, in the hope that they won’t continue to have more” of such initiatives, he said.
The vote came hours after Mr. Netanyahu, 73, returned to the Knesset just a day after undergoing surgery to install a pacemaker.
The White House said US President Joe Biden had “expressed the view that major changes in a democracy, in order to survive in the long term, require the broadest possible consensus”.
“Unfortunately today’s vote took place with the thinnest possible majority,” a statement said.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog, returning from a visit to Washington, visited Netanyahu’s hospital room on Sunday in a last-minute attempt to strike a compromise.
Herzog, who tried unsuccessfully to mediate negotiations after half a year of mass street protests, had previously warned that Israel faced a “national emergency”.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the driving force behind the reshuffle, said there was “no reason to fear” the provision.
“There are reasons to see it as an important step in restoring balance between the branches of government,” he told parliament at the end of a lengthy debate ahead of the vote.
After the law was passed, the minister said he wanted to “get an agreement” on a broader reform package.
But opposition leader Yair Lapid described Monday’s move in parliament as a “failure to Israeli democracy”.
“The government can decide a policy but it cannot change the character of the State of Israel, and that is what happened today,” he said.
– ‘Insane speed’ –
Speaking near parliament ahead of the vote, protester Alona Kesel, a 26-year-old high-tech worker, criticized the government for carrying out judicial reform at a “crazy pace”.
Opponents accuse Mr. Netanyahu, who has fought corruption charges in court, of conflicts of interest.
The “reasonable” clause was the first major component of the reform package to become law. Other proposed changes include giving the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.
The protests drew support from across the political spectrum and among secular and religious groups, blue-collar workers and the tech sector, peace activists and military reservists.
Another protester, teacher Avital Mesterman, vowed to “do whatever I can democratically” and continued to protest.
“I feel that we are going downhill, but I feel optimistic because of all the people who are here,” said the 42-year-old, who had come from Tel Aviv to join the rally in Jerusalem.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from an aggregated feed.)
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