Israel’s parliament approved the first of the laws that make up the controversial overhaul of the judicial system on Thursday, as demonstrators opposed to the changes took to the streets again to draw attention to a measure they believe will lead the country toward authoritarianism.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has agreed to a rule that protects the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule due to his corruption trial and allegations of conflicts of interest over his involvement in reform. Critics say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens rifts among Israelis over judicial reform.
The changes have divided the nation between those who believe they are stripping Israel of its democratic ideals and those who believe the country is under the control of a liberal judiciary. The government’s plan has plunged the country into one of its worst internal crises in its nearly 75-year history.
The opposition is entrenched in wide sectors of society, including business leaders and senior judicial officials. Even the Army was dragged down after some reservists refused to show up for duty because of the changes. International allies have also expressed concern.
Protesters kicked off the fourth day of weekday protests on Thursday. They blocked main roads, set tires on fire near a major port, and hung a large Israeli flag and a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
In addition, tens of thousands of people have participated in the weekly protests every Saturday night for more than two months.
Earlier this month, Netanyahu’s executive rejected a compromise proposal that sought to ease the crisis on the grounds that it would slow the pace of changes, delaying most of them until after the month-long legislative recess in April.
The 120-seat Knesset approved the Netanyahu protection law by 61 votes in favor, 47 against.
The text states that a prime minister can only be deemed unfit to rule for reasons of health or mental health, and that only he or his government can make that decision. The law follows mounting calls from opponents for the attorney general to declare Netanyahu unfit for his legal troubles. The Public Prosecutor has already prevented him from participating in the reform, alleging that he may be exposed to a conflict of interest due to his corruption operation.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy aides and powerful media men. The prime minister denies any crime and rejects criticism that the changes his chief executive is touting might give him a way to escape charges.
According to the government, the changes seek to correct a flaw that has given the courts too much power in the way the country is run.
Critics say the reform would change the system of checks and balances, giving the prime minister and chief executive, the most right-wing in the country’s history, unlimited power and abolishing judicial oversight.
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