Israel protests flare over Netanyahu’s new Supreme Court bill


By Rami Amichay

TEL AVIV (Reuters) -Israeli protesters blocked major highways and faced off with police on Tuesday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition pressed ahead with a contested bill that seeks curbs to the power of the Supreme Court.

Crowds of flag-waving protesters stopped morning traffic in major intersections and on highways nationwide. Some lay down on roads, while others threw flares.

Police on horseback deployed among hundreds of demonstrators in Israel’s business hub, Tel Aviv. At the entrance to Jerusalem, officers used a water cannon to disperse some protesters and dragged others away by force.

At least 42 people were arrested, police said, and further protests were planned throughout Tuesday, including at the main international Ben Gurion airport.

The drive by Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition to change the justice system has sparked unprecedented protests, stirred concern for Israel’s democratic health among Western allies and bruised the economy.

The new bill won a first of three required votes to be written into law late on Monday to the cries of ‘for shame’ by opposition lawmakers.

If passed as is, it would curb the Supreme Court’s power to quash decisions made by the government, ministers and elected officials by ruling them unreasonable.

Critics argue that this judicial oversight helps prevent corruption and abuses of power. Proponents say the change will facilitate effective governance by curbing court intervention, arguing that judges have other legal means to exercise oversight.

Some members of Netanyahu’s Likud party have said that the bill will be watered down before it is brought to a final vote which they hope to wrap up before the Knesset breaks for the summer on July 30.

But Simcha Rothman, the head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee which is drafting the bill, told Army Radio: “I’m saying this explicitly: I am not convinced that any significant changes are to be expected.”

Divisions over the government’s judicial campaign have cut deep through Israeli society. Netanyahu – who is on trial on graft charges he denies – had paused it for compromise talks with the opposition but the negotiations collapsed in June.

Washington has urged Netanyahu to come to broad agreements over any justice reforms that it says should keep Israel’s courts independent.

Netanyahu has so far not indicated he would again pause legislation and has also played down the economic fallout from the campaign, which has spooked investors and weakened the shekel almost 8% since January.

The head of Israel’s largest labour union urged Netanyahu not to allow what he described as extremism. “Where are you taking the state of Israel? What legacy will you leave behind? End this crazy chaos,” Histadrut chair Arnon Bar-David said.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Dan Willliams and Steven Scheer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Louise Heavens, William Maclean)

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