As protests continue, Israel passes judicial overhaul law that protects Netanyahu

Sea of protesters on city streets with tall buildings in the background.
Protesters throng a Tel Aviv street Thursday in opposition to a judicial overhaul proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
(Oded Balilty / Associated Press)
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Israel’s parliament Thursday passed the first of several laws that make up its contentious judicial overhaul as protesters opposing the changes staged another day of demonstrations aimed at raising alarm over what they see as the country’s descent toward autocracy.

Thousands of people protested throughout the country, blocking traffic on main highways and scuffling with police in unrest that shows no sign of abating, especially as the overhaul moves ahead.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition approved legislation that would protect him from being deemed unfit to rule because of his corruption trial and claims of a conflict of interest surrounding his involvement in the judicial changes. Critics say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens social divisions.


The legal changes have split the nation between those who see the new policies as undermining Israel’s democracy and those who think the country has been overrun by a liberal judiciary. The government’s plan has plunged the nearly 75-year-old nation into one of its worst domestic crises.

“Either Israel will be a Jewish, democratic and progressive state or religious, totalitarian, failing, isolated and closed off. That’s where they are leading us,” Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and a prominent supporter of the protest movement, told Israel’s Army Radio.

The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society, including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country’s military, seen as a beacon of stability by Israel’s Jewish majority, is enmeshed in the political conflict, as some reservists are refusing to show up for duty over the changes. Israel’s international allies have also expressed concern.

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The law to protect Netanyahu passed 61 to 47 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

It stipulates that a prime minister can be deemed unfit to rule only for health or mental reasons and that only he or his government can make that decision. It comes after the country’s attorney general has faced growing calls by Netanyahu’s opponents to declare him unfit to rule because of his legal problems. The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a good-governance organization, said it was challenging the newly passed law in court, in what could set up the first showdown between judges and the government over the legal changes. Experts say the overhaul could set off a constitutional crisis that would leave Israel in chaos over who should be obeyed, the government or the courts.

On Thursday, protesters launched a fourth midweek day of demonstrations. They blocked major thoroughfares, set tires ablaze near an important seaport and draped a large Israeli flag and a banner with the country’s Declaration of Independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Police said they made several arrests around the country. At least three protest leaders were arrested, organizers said.


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Protesters blocked the main highway in seaside Tel Aviv, and police used water cannon to disperse demonstrators there and in Haifa in the north.

Netanyahu called on opposition leaders to “stop the anarchy immediately” after what he said was an attack on Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security agency.

Video on social media showed a protester swiping her flagpole in Dichter’s direction, hitting him on the head, but he appeared unharmed. A spokesman for Dichter said that the flagpole tapped his head lightly.

A protest was planned later in the day in a large ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. The demonstration’s organizers say the rally there is meant to drive home to that community that its rights are in danger under the overhaul. Ultra-Orthodox leaders see the demonstration in their midst as provocative.

The judicial overhaul crisis has magnified a long-standing rift between secular Jewish Israelis and religious ones over how much of a role religion should play in their day-to-day lives. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in government are central drivers of the overhaul because they believe the courts are a threat to their traditional way of life. By contrast, secular opponents to the changes fear they will open the door to religious coercion.

In addition to Thursday’s demonstrations, tens of thousands of people have been showing up for weekly protests each Saturday night for more than two months.

Netanyahu’s government rejected a compromise proposal this month. It said it would instead slow the pace of the changes, delaying most of them until after a monthlong parliamentary recess in April.

But Netanyahu’s administration is plowing ahead on a key part of the overhaul that would give the government control over who becomes a judge. The government says it amended the original bill to make the law more inclusive, but opponents rejected the move, saying the change was cosmetic and would maintain the government’s grip over judicial appointments. The measure is expected to pass next week.

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Netanyahu is on trial for alleged fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses criticism that he could find an escape route from the charges through the legal overhaul his government is advancing.

Critics say the government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is pushing the country toward authoritarianism with its overhaul, which they say upends the country’s fragile system of checks and balances.


Rights groups and Palestinians say Israel’s democratic ideals have long been tarnished by the country’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state and the treatment of Palestinian Israeli citizens, who face discrimination in many spheres.