Defying Unrest, Israel Adopts Law Weakening Supreme Court

On a day of turbulence in the streets and in the halls of power alike, Israeli lawmakers on Monday enacted a major change in law to weaken the judiciary, capping a monthslong campaign by the right-wing governing coalition that is pitting Israelis against one another with rare ferocity.

Throngs of protesters outside the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and opposition lawmakers inside shouted that the change was a grievous blow to the rule of law, to the rights of citizens and to democracy itself. Coalition members countered that it was the judiciary that posed a threat to democracy, and said that they planned to take further steps to curb it.

The fight over the law, which has prompted the most widespread demonstrations in the country’s history, reflects a deeper split between those who want a more explicitly Jewish and religious Israel, and those who want to preserve a more secular, pluralist society.

The measure strips Israel’s Supreme Court of the power to overturn government actions and appointments it deems “unreasonable,” a practice that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing governing coalition says has effectively given the court veto power over the will of the majority. Still on the coalition’s agenda are plans to give the government more power over the selection of Supreme Court justices, among other changes.

“From today, Israel will be a little more democratic, a little more Jewish, and we will be able to do more in our offices,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, told reporters. “With God’s help, this will be just the beginning.”

Opponents say that in a nation that has a single-chamber Parliament and no written constitution, the court’s power has been the only check on unjust rule by a majority. They say the change made on Monday clears away an important impediment to the government — the most right-wing, nationalist and religiously conservative in the country’s history — and could potentially be used to derail the corruption prosecution of Mr. Netanyahu.

Critics of the overall judicial overhaul package proposed by the government fear it could end up, if enacted, accelerating West Bank settlement construction, with some or all of that region annexed; curbing the rights of non-Jews; expanding the power of rabbinical leaders; and allowing discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people and women. Mr. Netanyahu has said that individual rights will be protected, but many Israelis no longer believe him.

“In front of us lies a clear and immediate danger: continuing oppressive legislation, the appointment of political judges, trampling on the gatekeepers and dismissal of the attorney general” overseeing the prosecution of the prime minister, said Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition Blue and White party.

Talks seeking a last-minute compromise were underway until hours before the vote, but in the end they collapsed and the governing coalition decided to push ahead. The measure won final passage by a vote of 64 to 0, after all the opposition members in the 120-seat Knesset walked out.

While demonstrators in Jerusalem clashed with security forces that fired water cannons, many businesses across the country closed in protest, Israel’s largest labor union threatened a general strike, and, perhaps most ominous for the government, 10,000 military reservists threatened to resign, which could hobble some functions of the armed forces.

Protesters spent the night outside Parliament; some had been on the road for five days, sleeping in tents and marching to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. During the day, hundreds of government opponents attempted to block roads leading to the building, including some who chained themselves together, and they did block the main entrance to the Knesset. Police officers sprayed water hoses and a foul-smelling liquid at them, making arrests and pushing them back.

A mass of demonstrators tried to make an end-run around police barriers through the rose garden next to the Knesset, shouting, beating drums and blowing noisemakers, before the police repelled them. The din was audible inside, and it reached a fever pitch when the prime minister cast his vote.

“I’m here to try and stop the government from committing suicide,” said one protester, Noam Shaham, 60, an engineer. “The government is trying to gain power without any control. We only have the judicial branch to stop them, and they’re trying to eliminate it.”

Some government supporters paused long enough to engage in arguments — or shouting matches — with the demonstrators before moving on.

Within the Knesset, opposition lawmakers shouted at the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who has publicly expressed reservations about the decision to move forward with the legislation, largely out of concern about the effect of the reservists’ protest on military readiness — but voted for it.

During discussion of the many proposed amendments before the final vote, he argued repeatedly on the floor of the Parliament with Yariv Levin, the justice minister who is considered the architect of the overhaul — though they both belong to Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Street demonstrations continued across the country past midnight. Officers on horseback tried to push protesters off a road in Tel Aviv but could not, and some in the crowd set fires in the streets. The police in Jerusalem again used water cannons against people gathered outside the Supreme Court building. Chaotic images like those dominated news broadcasts throughout the day and Monday night.

Mr. Netanyahu took a conciliatory tone in a televised address on Monday night, a day after having an emergency procedure to implant a cardiac pacemaker. He appealed to military reservists not to leave the service, saying, “We have one country, one home, one people.”

“In the coming days the coalition will approach the opposition with the aim of holding a dialogue between us,” the prime minister added, noting that the Knesset is scheduled to recess on Wednesday and not reconvene until October. “We are ready to discuss everything, immediately and during the recess, and if more time is needed, until the end of November.”

Such assurances rang hollow to his opponents, after months of fruitless talks on a compromise.

Opposition lawmakers pondered, without much apparent optimism, their prospects for blocking the law — for instance by asking the Supreme Court to overturn the very measure designed to rein it in.

After a year and a half out of power, Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, in December formed a government with parties previously seen as being on the fringes of the country’s politics. They include far-right nationalists who want an expanded Israel that is explicitly a state for Jews and that encompasses some or all of the West Bank, as well as ultra-Orthodox parties.

“Today, we saw an unprecedented show of weakness by Netanyahu,” the opposition leader, Yair Lapid, said after the vote. “There is no prime minister in Israel. Netanyahu has become a puppet on a string of messianic extremists.”

Mr. Ben-Gvir said his party, which Mr. Netanyahu needs to govern, would not accept any compromise on the judicial bill, and claimed “an enormous mandate” for the government’s proposed changes in the election last November.

But polls have consistently shown more Israelis opposing the judicial overhaul than supporting it, and former leaders of the security services have advised against it.

In addition to deeply dividing Israelis, the measure has alienated some of Israel’s American allies like President Biden, who cautioned repeatedly against it.

“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,” his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.”

The Israeli opposition said it would petition the Supreme Court to strike down the law, and a rights group said it had already asked the court to step in. The measure amends one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which act almost like a constitution. Experts said the court has never struck down an element of a Basic Law, and it was not clear whether the court would take up the matter.

Another idea that was floated involved President Isaac Herzog’s refusing to sign the bill. He had tried to mediate a compromise on the overhaul. But Mr. Herzog’s role is largely ceremonial, it is not clear if he would go along with the plan, and some experts said they doubted that the absence of his signature would carry any legal weight.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Aaron Boxerman from London and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Patrick Kingsley, Hiba Yazbek, Jonathan Rosen, Myra Noveck and Roni Rabin from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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