JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to curb the powers of the country’s justice system despite massive protests that exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society and accused the government of pushing the country toward authoritarian rule.
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 strengthen democracy by limiting the powers of unelected judges and giving elected officials more powers over decision making.
But protesters see the overhaul as a power grab fueled by personal and political grievances of Netanyahu — who is on trial for corruption charges — and his partners.
His allies, who include ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties, have promoted such goals as increased West Bank settlement construction, annexation of the occupied territory and limiting the rights of LGBTQ+ people and Palestinians.
In Israel, which does not have a formal constitution, the judiciary plays a critical oversight role in the country’s system of checks and balances.
Under the Israeli system, the prime minister governs through a majority coalition in parliament — in effect giving him control over two branches of government. By moving to weaken the judiciary, critics say, Netanyahu’s allies will consolidate power by weakening the independence and oversight of judges. They liken the process to “illiberal” democracies like Poland and Hungary.
“It’s a sad day,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the vote. “This is not a victory for the coalition. This is the destruction of Israeli democracy.”
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 the vote, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had taken the “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.
Hundreds of people blocked Jerusalem’s main highway after the vote. Walls and fences running the length of the street outside the Supreme Court, prime minister’s office and parliament were plastered with hundreds of stickers reading “we won’t service a dictator,” “democracy or rebellion” and “save Israel from Netanyahu.” Police tried to clear away the crowds with water cannons spraying skunk-scented water.
Earlier, demonstrators blocked a road leading up to the parliament, and big mall chains and some gas stations shuttered their doors in protest.
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.
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 said.
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.
The overhaul has exposed deep divisions in Israeli society — much of it along religious, ethnic and class lines.
While protesters come from all segments of society, they come largely from the country’s secular middle class, while Netanyahu’s supporters tend to be poorer, more religious and live in West Bank settlements or outlying rural areas. Many of his supporters are Mizrahi Jews, with roots in Middle Eastern countries, and have expressed hostility toward what they say is an elitist class of Ashkenazi or European, Jews.
On the eve of the vote, tens of thousands of people gathered for mass rallies for and against the plan. Netanyahu’s supporters late Sunday, thronged central Tel Aviv — normally the setting for anti-government protests — while his opponents converged on Jerusalem ahead of Monday’s vote.
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.