Israeli parliament passes key part of Netanyahu's divisive judicial overhaul plan

“We see the passage of part of the legal reform as unfortunate,” the Biden administration said of the move that has prompted mass protests.


JERUSALEM — Israel was in an uproar Monday after the country's parliament gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's sweeping plans to overhaul the judicial system a boost by passing a law that weakens the powers of the courts.

Ignoring huge protests in the streets and warnings from the White House and other international allies, Israeli lawmakers allied with Netanyahu pushed through a bill that takes away the power of the Supreme Court to declare government decisions unreasonable.

The vote came before opposition politicians shouting "shame" and "government of destruction" stormed out of the chamber, leaving behind the governing coalition of far-right and religious parties which passed the contentious bill 64 to nothing.

Later, a crowd of protesters outside the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, tried to cross a police cordon near the building before being repelled by security, officials said.

A protester blocking the entrance of the Knesset is removed by security forces.Hazem Bader / AFP - Getty Images

Netanyahu, who attended the vote hours after being released from a hospital following an emergency heart procedure, and his allies say the change is needed to stop unelected judges from overruling democratic leaders.

The Israeli leader, in an address afterward to his countrymen, defended the vote and said it was "aimed at restoring a degree of balance between the authorities, which was here for 50 years."

"We passed the amendment on the reason of reasonableness, so that the elected government could lead the policy in accordance with the decision of the majority of the country’s citizens," Netanyahu insisted. "Fulfilling the will of the voter is by no means the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy. "

Netanyahu said he tried to find common ground with his opponents and will resume negotiations again soon.

Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid they "will not participate in talks that are an empty show."

"Netanyahu’s statement this evening is another lie whose sole purpose is to take pressure off the Americans and put the protest to sleep," Lapid said in a video statement. "The government of the extremists and the messiahs cannot in the afternoon tear apart our democracy and in the evening send Netanyahu to say that he offers negotiations. They will not make us give up, we will not give up, the fight has just begun.”

Prior to the vote, President Isaac Herzog had attempted to find a compromise between the government and opposition parties and called the standoff between the two sides a “national emergency.”

Thousands of protesters outside the Knesset believe the government’s proposed judicial overhaul is a Netanyahu power grab and national crisis and argue that a crucial check on political power will now be lost and the Jewish state’s democracy will be diluted.

Demonstrators banged on drums, blew horns and waved Israeli flags as they blocked a road leading to the Knesset. Businesses closed in protest. Police used water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the Knesset after being released from hospital.Maya Alleruzzo / AP

Dozens of protesters outside the Knesset have been detained, including one who allegedly bit a police officer, officials said.

Netanyahu's critics say the Israeli leader faces a choice between democracy and autocracy.

“After an unprecedented wave of protests, and clear warnings from the security establishment, industry leaders, the hi-tech sector, the trade unions and now directly from the White House, today Netanyahu will decide between the will of the people and the will of the extremists in his own government,” Shikma Bressler, a protest movement leader, said in a statement before the final vote.

Many military reservists and retired veterans are taking part in the direct action, a sign of how deeply felt the overhaul is across Israeli society.

“We’re not going to continue to risk our lives going to serve in an air force of a country that is not democratic. It’s as simple as that,” Guy Poran, a former air force pilot who is now a protest movement leader, said ahead of the vote.

“You’re either for this kind of legislation or you’re fighting against it. And this is something that has never happened in 75 years of existence of Israel. And, frankly, it’s frightening,” he said.

Israeli security forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance to parliament.Menahem Kahana / AFP - Getty Images

So many reservists are taking part in protests that it has become a national security problem, according to a senior military leader.

“These are dangerous cracks,” military chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi wrote in a letter to soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces on Sunday meant to address the tensions. “If we will not be a strong and cohesive military, if the best do not serve in the IDF, we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region.”

Netanyahu, in his post-vote address, warned "the IDF must stay out of any political controversy. "

"We all know that the IDF relies on dedicated reservists who love the country," he said. "The call for refusal harms the security of all citizens of the country."  

The judicial overhaul, which was backed by Israel’s ruling coalition of far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, has been the source of intense protests for months.

The White House took the highly unusual step of weighing in on Israel's internal political developments after the vote.

"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," the statement released by White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. "It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority."

Earlier, in a statement Sunday to the news website Axios, President Joe Biden urged Netanyahu to come to a peaceable consensus.

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he said.

The political turmoil comes amid heightened concerns over Netanyahu's health. The 73-year-old was fitted with a pacemaker over the weekend, in his second hospital stay in two weeks.

The prime minister recorded a short video saying he was well, thanking the doctors and the public for their support. He attended the Knesset vote in person.

But Netanyahu's foes vowed to keep fighting. The chairman of the Histradut, Israel's national labor union, Arnon Bar-David, said after Monday's vote that he will gather his members and if necessary call a "complete shutdown."

Paul Goldman and Raf Sanchez reported from Jerusalem, Patrick Smith from London and Corky Siemaszko from New York.