Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and lawmakers gather at the Knesset plenum to vote on a bill that would limit some Supreme Court power, in Jerusalem July 24, 2023. Image Credit: REUTERS

JERUSALEM: Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite massive protests that have exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society.

The vote came after a stormy session in which opposition lawmakers chanted “shame” and then stormed out of the chamber.

It reflected the determination of Netanyahu and his far-right allies to move ahead with the plan, which has tested the delicate social ties that bind the country, rattled the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly drawn concern from its closest ally, the United States.

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected. Netanyahu and his allies say the changes are needed to curb the powers of unelected judges.

Israeli lawmakers take a selfie in the Knesset plenum following a vote on a bill that would limit some Supreme Court power, in Jerusalem July 24, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Protesters, who come from a wide swath of Israeli society, see the overhaul in general as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption charges — and his partners.

In Monday’s vote, lawmakers approved a measure that prevents judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.”

With the opposition out of the hall, the measure passed by a 64-0 margin.

After, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken “first step in an important historic process” of overhauling the judiciary.

More mass protests are now expected, and the Movement for Quality Government, a civil society group, immediately announced it would challenge the new law in the Supreme Court.

The grassroots protest movement condemned the vote, saying Netanyahu’s “government of extremists is showing their determination to jam their fringe ideology down the throats of millions of citizens.”

“No one can predict the extent of damage and social upheaval that will follow the passage of the legislation,” it said.

Earlier, demonstrators, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government’s plan, blocked a road leading up to the parliament, and big mall chains and some gas stations shuttered their doors in protest.

Israeli security forces breakup a sit-in at the entrance of the Knesset. Image Credit: AFP

‘We are headed for disaster’

Further ratcheting up the pressure on Netanyahu, thousands of military reservists have declared their refusal to serve under a government taking steps that they see as setting the country on a path to dictatorship. Those moves have prompted fears that the military’s preparedness could be compromised.

Ahead of Monday’s vote, opposition leader Yair Lapid had declared: “We are headed for disaster.”

The vote came only hours after Netanyahu was released from the hospital, where he had a pacemaker implanted.

His sudden hospitalization added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events, which were watched closely in Washington. The Biden administration has frequently spoken out against Netanyahu’s government and its overhaul plan. In a statement to the news site Axios late Sunday, President Joe Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes that were sparking so much division.

“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.

Biden has also been critical of the government’s steps to deepen Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

The massive, sustained democracy protests have shunned mention of Israel’s 56-year occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for their hoped-for independent state, fearing the issue might alienate supporters. But critics portray this rule over another people as a major stain on Israel’s claim to be a liberal democracy and accuse the protesters of harboring a significant blind spot in their struggle.

Israeli security forces breakup a sit-in at the entrance of the Knesset. Image Credit: AFP

As lawmakers debated, tens of thousands of people gathered for mass rallies for and against the plan.

Protesters banging on drums and blowing horns blocked a road leading to Israel’s parliament, or Knesset, and police used water cannons to push them back. The protest movement said one of its leaders was arrested.

“The state of Israel stands before destruction and ruin that is being brought upon it by a gang of extremists and kooks. We must go up to Jerusalem today!” one branch of the protest movement called out to demonstrators on social media.

Netanyahu’s supporters, meanwhile, thronged central Tel Aviv — normally the setting for anti-government protests.

Despite the attempts to project business as usual, Netanyahu’s schedule was disrupted by his hospitalization, with a Cabinet meeting and trips postponed. His doctors said Sunday the procedure had gone smoothly and the prime minister said in a short video statement from the hospital late Sunday that he felt fine.

Netanyahu paused the overhaul in March after intense pressure by protesters and labor strikes that halted outgoing flights and shut down parts of the economy. After talks to find a compromise failed last month, he said his government was pressing on with the overhaul.