The Denver Post

Israel’s judicial overhaul advances despite uproar

- By Lauriekell­man and Ilanben Zion

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government on Tuesday for the first time advanced a plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, defying a mass uproar among Israelis and calls for restraint from the United States.

The vote marked only preliminar­y approval for the plan. But it raised the stakes in a political battle that drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets, sparked criticism from influentia­l sectors of society and widened the rifts in an already polarized country.

The 63- 47 vote aftermidni­ght gave initial approval to a plan that would give Netanyahu’s coalition more power over who becomes a judge. It is part of a broader package of changes that seeks to weaken the country’s Supreme Court and transfer more power to the ruling coalition.

Netanyahu’s ultrarelig­ious and ultranatio­nalist allies say these changes are needed to rein in the powers of an unelected judiciary. Critics fear that judges will be appointed based on their loyalty to the government or prime minister — and say that Netanyahu, who faces trial on corruption charges, has a conflict of interest in the legislatio­n.

The showdown has plunged Israel into one of its most bitter domestic crises, with both sides insisting that the future of democracy is at stake in their Middle Eastern country. Israeli Palestinia­ns, a minority that may have the most to lose by the overhaul, have mostly stayed on the sidelines, due to discrimina­tion they face at home and Israel’s ongoing 55-year occupation of their Palestinia­n brethren in the West Bank.

The legislator­s cast their votes after a vitrolic debate that dragged on past midnight. During the session, opposition lawmakers chanted, “shame,” and wrapped themselves in the Israeli flag— and somewere ejected from the hall.

Ahead of the vote, Netanyahu accused the demonstrat­ors of violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted his coalition into power last November.

“The people exercised their right to vote in the elections and the people’s representa­tives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel’s Knesset. It’s called democracy,” Netanyahu said, though he left the door open for dialogue on the planned changes.

The vote on part of the legislatio­n is just the first of three readings required for parliament­ary approval, a process that is expected to take months.

Nonetheles­s, the opposition, including tens of thousands of protesters in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv, saw Monday’s vote as the coalition’s determinat­ion to barrel ahead.

“We are fighting for our children’s future, for our country’s future. We don’t intend to give up,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Israel’s figurehead president has urged the government to freeze the legislatio­n and seek a compromise with the opposition, a position supported by most polls.

Leaders in the booming tech sector have warned that weakening the judiciary could drive away investors.

The overhaul ha s prompted otherwise stoic former security chiefs to speak out, and even warn of civil war. The plan has even sparked rarewarnin­gs from the U.S., Israel’s chief internatio­nal ally.

U.S. Ambassador Tomnides told a podcast over the weekend that Israel should “pump the brakes” on the legislatio­n and seek a consensus on reformthat­would protect Israel’s democratic institutio­ns.

His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu allies, telling Nides to stay out of Israel’s internal affairs.

The debate ragedmonda­y from the floor of the Knesset to flag-waving demonstrat­ions in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Simcha Rothman, a farright lawmaker leading the legislativ­e initiative, presented the proposal to the parliament. Overhead in the viewing gallery, a spectator banged on the protective glass and was carried away by guards.

A fellow Religious Zionism party politician posted a photo on Twitter with Rothman ahead of the vote, celebratin­g with whisk ya nd sushi.

Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrat­ed outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan. Onmonday, the crowds returned, waved Israeli flags, blew horns, and held signs reading “saving democracy.”

“All the steps that are going to take place now in the Knesset will change us to a pure dictatorsh­ip,” said Itan Gur Aryeh, a 74-year-old retiree. “All the power will be with the government, with the head of the government and we’ll all be without rights.”

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