Israel PM defends 'necessary' judicial reform vote as protests flare

25 Jul 2023 07:50am
Demonstrators stand with their arms crossed in the air during a protest rally against the Israeli government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)
Demonstrators stand with their arms crossed in the air during a protest rally against the Israeli government's judicial reform plan in Tel Aviv on July 24, 2023. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

JERUSALEM, Palestine - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday defended as "necessary" parliament's vote for a key clause of the government's controversial judicial reform package, defying mass protests and international concern.

Netanyahu and his coalition allies approved the bill earlier on Monday following a stormy parliamentary session, which saw opposition lawmakers boycott the decisive vote with some shouting "shame, shame".

Critics charge the judicial revamp could open the way to more authoritarian government by removing checks and balances on the Israeli executive.

The bill passed with 64 votes in the 120-seat chamber. It aims to limit the powers of the Supreme Court in striking down government decisions which the judges deem "unreasonable".

The premier justified the decision to press ahead with the vote as a "necessary democratic step".

"We passed the amendment on reasonableness so that the elected government can carry out policy in line with the decision of the majority of the citizens of the country," he said in a televised address.

Israel's traditional bedrock ally Washington has repeatedly raised concern about the political turmoil and described Monday's vote as "unfortunate".

Netanyahu's coalition government, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, argues that the proposed changes are needed to ensure a better balance of power.

The reform package has triggered one of the biggest protest movements in Israel's history since it was unveiled by the government in January.

The Histadrut trade union confederation threatened a nationwide strike in response to the parliamentary vote, urging the government to resume negotiations with the opposition.

"Any unilateral progress of the reform will have serious consequences," Histadrut chairman Arnon Bar-David said in a statement.

A walkout staged by Histadrut in March within hours prompted Netanyahu to halt the legislative process, paving the way for cross-party talks which ultimately collapsed.

- 'Really sad' - Protesters gathered throughout the day outside parliament, where they blew horns, beat drums and waved Israeli flags.

Rallies continued into the evening on Monday in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the country's commercial hub, while demonstrators blocked roads.

Police used water cannon and mounted officers were deployed against the crowds.

"I thought there would be a change or a compromise, but deep inside I knew this would happen and it's really sad," protester Danny Akerman, 52, told AFP after the vote.

"We need to continue the protest, continue to put pressure, in the hope that they won't continue with more" such initiatives, he said.

The vote took place hours after Netanyahu, 73, returned to the Knesset only a day after undergoing surgery to have a pacemaker fitted. The White House said US President Joe Biden has "expressed his views that major changes in a democracy, to be enduring, must have as broad a consensus as possible".

"It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority," a statement said.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, just back from a Washington trip, had gone to Netanyahu's hospital room on Sunday in a last-minute effort to reach a compromise.

Herzog, who had tried but failed to broker negotiations after half a year of mass street protests, earlier warned that Israel faced a "national emergency".

The driving force behind the revamp, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, said there was "no reason to fear" the clause.

"There are many reasons to see it as an important step in returning the balance between the government branches," he told parliament at the end of a marathon debate leading up to the vote.

After the legislation passed, the minister said he wanted to "reach an agreement" on the broader reform package.

But opposition leader Yair Lapid described Monday's move in parliament as a "defeat for Israeli democracy".

"The government can decide a policy but not change the character of the State of Israel, and that's what happened today," he said.

- 'Crazy speed' - Speaking near parliament ahead of the vote, demonstrator Alona Kesel, a 26-year-old high-tech worker, criticised the government for forging ahead with the judicial overhaul at "crazy speed".

Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who has been fighting corruption charges in court, of a conflict of interest.

The "reasonableness" clause is the first major component of the reform package to become law. Other proposed changes include allowing the government a greater say in the appointment of judges.

The protests have drawn support from across the political spectrum and among secular and religious groups, blue-collar and tech sector workers, peace activists and military reservists.

Another protester, teacher Avital Mesterman, vowed to "do whatever I can do democratically" and keep protesting.

"I feel that we're going down, but I feel optimistic because of all the people that are here," said the 42-year-old, who had travelled from Tel Aviv to join the Jerusalem rally. - AFP

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