Far-right government in Israel votes to limit Supreme Court powers


JERUSALEM — Israeli lawmakers voted Monday to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government actions, delivering on a long-sought goal of the country’s ascendant right-wing movement. The measure was pushed through despite months of massive civil unrest, international condemnations and pleas from business and security leaders to seek consensus in a bitterly divided society on the verge of chaos.

Lawmakers methodically voted down 140 amendments, just as they had shouldered through more than a thousand objections in a week of preliminary maneuvering and more than six months of nationwide protests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — just hours after leaving the hospital where he had an emergency pacemaker implanted — sat calmly through the voting as shouts of derision rained around him, occasionally leaving for consultations. He took several phone calls, including from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who was working feverishly to broker a last-minute compromise.

But in a dramatic and contentious parliamentary session, with shouts of “Shame!” chanted by demonstrators outside the Knesset and opposition members inside, the prime minster’s coalition of right-wing, religiously conservative and ultra-nationalist parties stood steadfast.

Shortly before 4 p.m. local time, after opposition members had left the chamber in protest, they voted 64-to-0 to change Israel’s Basic Law, stripping the Supreme Court of some of its powers of judicial review — a first victory in a more expansive push to rein in the judiciary, which has long been in a thorn in the side of Israel’s right wing.

In allowing the vote, Netanyahu brushed past a remarkable and growing chorus of entreaties from business and security leaders, including a rebuke late Sunday from President Biden, who told Israeli media, “It doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this.”

High-tech leaders warned that Israel’s reputation as an open and innovative start-up incubator was at risk. The Israel Business Forum, a federation of 150 of the country’s largest companies, shuttered malls, law firms and gas stations.

More than 10,000 military reserve pilots, cyber experts and other servicemembers pledged to skip their training duties if the coalition pushed the legislation through. Netanyahu was scheduled to meet after the vote with the Army’s chief of staff amid warnings from top generals that Israel’s defensive readiness could be impaired if enough reservists follow through on that threat.

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Hopes for a last-minute deal rose and collapsed several times during the day. Herzog — who has warned that Israel is at risk of “civil war” — met with Netanyahu at the hospital after returning late Sunday from a visit to Washington. Netanyahu also talked to opposition leader Yair Lapid on Monday, according to Israeli press reports. But Lapid said shortly before voting began that hopes of a compromise had collapsed.

The country’s largest labor federation, which saw its own compromise proposal rejected out of hand by Netanyahu’s Likud party Sunday, has said it may call a general strike. Bankers warned that deposits and investments had already begun to flee the country. Following Monday’s vote, the shekel and the Tel Aviv stock exchange plummeted.

Organizers of demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of Israelis into the streets week after week since January — a grass-roots spectrum of veterans, academics, tech workers and doctors — said passing the bill would unleash even greater fury. Protesters, some of whom have been camping in the July heat of central Jerusalem for days, poured into the parks and plazas around the Knesset after Monday’s vote, joined by throngs getting off trains from Tel Aviv.

Police used water cannons and horse patrols to disperse crowds that tried to block roads into the Knesset compound throughout the day. They dragged demonstrators out of roadways, including military veterans and reservists who linked arms inside of PVC pipes as they lay on the hot pavement.

The proposal to overhaul the judiciary has split the country since it was launched as a surprise initiative just days after Netanyahu’s new right-wing government took office in late December. Yariv Levin, the justice minister, introduced a package of Knesset bills that would give the ruling parties more power to override Supreme Court decisions and select judges.

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The initial package included bills that would stop the court from blocking politicians convicted of crimes from serving in top government jobs. The judicial standard of “reasonableness” that has given the court that authority was the power stripped from the court by Monday’s vote.

Without a written constitution, the courts have used the “reasonableness” doctrine to block certain controversial decisions and appointments. Earlier this year, in a case that infuriated conservatives, the court forced Netanyahu to fire a key political ally — ultra-Orthodox party leader Aryeh Deri — from his twin appointments as health and interior minister.

The court ruled that Deri’s multiple criminal convictions made his appointment “unreasonable in the extreme.”

Critics said Netanyahu could now not only reappoint Deri, but also fire Israel’s independent attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who has angered coalition members by not prosecuting protesters who have demonstrated at government ministers’ houses.

Conservatives contend that Monday’s change was crucial to reining in a judiciary that has usurped legislative authority and is hopelessly biased toward Israel’s leftist elite. Critics say it’s a power grab that would gut the long-standing balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches.

The division reflects a fast-widening gap in how Israelis view their country. For the ultra-Orthodox and ultra-nationalist parties that gave Netanyahu his four-seat majority in the Knesset — bringing him back to power after a year and a half on the sidelines — the courts have been a barrier to their longstanding ambition of centering religious conservatism in public spaces and government policy. The court has limited draft exemptions for Yeshiva students, for example, and been a check on the confiscation of land in the occupied West Bank.

For Israel’s more liberal residents in the tech and cultural hubs along the Mediterranean coast, the courts have been one of the few counterweights to the growing power of the right wing. Reducing its power, they say, risks putting Israel on the path to autocracy and even theocracy, with religious leaders dictating more aspects of civic life.


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