Israeli parliament gives initial OK to measure limiting the Supreme Court’s oversight powers

AP  /  July 11, 2023

JERUSALEM –  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s parliamentary coalition gave initial approval early Tuesday to a contentious bill to limit the Supreme Court’s oversight powers, pressing forward with a judicial overhaul plan that has polarized Israel.

The legislation is one of several bills proposed by Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies. The plan has provoked months of sustained protests by opponents who say it is pushing the country toward authoritarian rule. Mass protests were expected later Tuesday in response to the vote.

Lawmakers held the first of three readings of a bill that would curb the high court’s ability to scrutinize the “reasonability” of decisions made by elected officials.

That standard was implemented by the Supreme Court earlier this year to strike down the appointment of a Netanyahu ally as interior minister because of a past conviction for bribery and a 2021 plea deal for tax evasion.

Critics say removing that standard would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or firings and open the door to corruption.

The bill passed in a parliamentary session that stretched past midnight by a vote of 64 to 56. Opposition lawmakers shouted “shame,” while members of Netanyahu’s coalition stood and cheered after the vote passed. The bill must still be passed in two more readings to become law.

Anti-overhaul activists called for a series of nationwide mass demonstrations Tuesday, including protests that could disrupt travel at Israel’s main international airport.

Netanyahu’s allies have proposed a series of changes to the Israeli legal system aimed at weakening what they say are the excessive powers of unelected judges. The proposed changes include giving Netanyahu’s allies control over the appointment of judges and giving parliament power to overturn court decisions.

Netanyahu put the overhaul plan on hold in March after weeks of mass protests. But last month, he decided to revive the plan after talks with the political opposition aimed at finding a compromise collapsed.

The Netanyahu government, which took office in December, is the most hardline ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox in Israel’s 75-year history. His allies proposed the sweeping changes to the judiciary after the country held its fifth elections in under four years, all of them seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s fitness to serve as prime minister while on trial for corruption.

Critics of the plan say it will upset the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies. They also say Netanyahu has a conflict of interest because he is on trial for charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, all of which he has denied.

A wide swath of Israeli society, including reserve military officers, business leaders, LGBTQ+ and other minority groups have joined the protests.