Israel‘s parliament on Monday began final voting on contested changes sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the judiciary as compromise talks meant to ease one of the country’s worst political crises in decades appeared to collapse.
There was no immediate comment from President Isaac Herzog who called the standoff “a national emergency” and has been leading compromise talks on the government’s judicial plans, which have sparked unprecedented nationwide protests.
Police used a water cannon to disperse demonstrators opposed to the judicial campaign by Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition and officers dragged away protesters who had chained themselves to posts and blocked the road outside parliament.
“You cannot reach agreements that safeguard Israel’s democracy with this government,” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told Israeli television channels at the Knesset minutes before the hours-long vote began.
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With banks and businesses joining in the protest, pressure mounted on Netanyahu, who was released from hospital on Monday morning after a two-night stay during which he was fitted with a pacemaker.
Netanyahu has been urged by Washington on the one side to reach a compromise with the opposition, while his hard-line coalition partners are pushing for legislation to go ahead with more judicial changes to follow.
The crisis has spread to the military, with protest leaders saying thousands of volunteer reservists would not report for duty if the government continues with the plans and former top brass warning that Israel’s war-readiness could be at risk.
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Nonetheless, commanding a comfortable majority in parliament, Netanyahu’s coalition looked set to win the vote on the bill that limits the Supreme Court’s powers to overrule decisions made by governments and ministers.
“We’re on our way to a disaster,” Lapid told lawmakers during the stormy debate. “If you vote for this bill you will weaken the state of Israel, the people of Israel and the Israel Defence Forces.”
It would be the first change written into law from a package critics fear aims to curb judicial independence, but which Netanyahu – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – insists are needed for balance among branches of government.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin who has been a driving force of the changes, defended the bill, which would amend a law enabling the Supreme Court to void decisions it deems “unreasonable.”
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“There’s no reason to fear this amendment. There are many reasons to see it as an important step toward restoring balance between the branches of government as respecting the voters’ choice,” said Levin.
Netanyahu’s coalition has been determined to push back against what it describes as overreach by a Supreme Court that it says has become too politically interventionist.
Critics say Monday’s amendment has been rushed through parliament and will open the door to abuses of power by removing one of the few effective checks on the executive’s authority in a country without a formal written constitution.
The government announced its plans for judiciary changes in January, soon after it was sworn in, stirring concern among allies abroad for Israel’s democratic health and denting the economy.
The Shekel has weakened around eight per cent since.
Israel’s two biggest banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, said they would allow workers to demonstrate on Monday without losing pay.
A forum of some 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike and Azrieli and Big, two of Israel’s largest malls, said stores in their shopping centers would remain closed.