Israel parliament gives initial approval to judicial reform bill

JERUSALEM: The Israeli parliament backed a key part of a controversial judicial overhaul at first reading Tuesday despite protests across the country against a bill critics see as a threat to democracy.

Lawmakers vote 63 to 47 to give more weight to the government in the committee that selects judges, and to deny courts the right to rule on legislation they deem in conflict with so-called Basic Laws, Israel’s quasi constitution.

Tens of thousands had protested on the streets of Jerusalem Monday against the anticipated vote. Inside parliament, opposition lawmakers disrupted the debate with shouts of “shame,” and were temporarily removed.

The bill will now return to the law committee for more debate, ahead of its second and third readings in the plenum before it becomes law.

“From now on, the court will belong to everyone,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin said after the bill passed its first reading, calling on members of the opposition to “come and talk.”

“We can reach understandings,” Levin said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the coalition of pushing Israel toward civil war, saying if “you care about Israel and its people” then “you’ll halt legislation today.”

President Isaac Herzog has been trying to bring the sides together for talks on the reform with no success.

The sweeping judicial reform is a cornerstone of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration, an alliance with ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties which took office in late December.

Another element of it would give parliament the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member parliament.

The premier presents the overhaul as key to restoring balance between the branches of government, arguing judges currently have too much power over elected officials.

Critics accuse the government of a power grab, and weekly protests against the legislation since early January have been joined by tens of thousands of people.