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Israeli lawmakers pass a key law to weaken the judiciary despite public outrage

Israeli security forces remove protesters blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Monday.
Hazem Bader
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AFP via Getty Images
Israeli security forces remove protesters blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Monday.

Updated July 24, 2023 at 12:24 PM ET

Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved controversial changes to the judiciary, part of a package of proposed actions that's roiled the country in protests in recent months and sparked opposition from broad swaths of Israeli society.

The vote in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, capped a monthslong campaign by Israel's far-right government to weaken the judiciary, a move critics say pushes the country toward authoritarianism.

The measure passed uncontested after opposition lawmakers shouted "Shame!" at their colleagues before walking out in protest. Ahead of the vote, lawmakers were unable to reach a compromise with the political opposition.

What the new law does

This law cancels the reasonableness clause, which allowed Israel's Supreme Court to block government appointments and decisions by elected officials that it deemed to be unreasonable and not in the public interest.

Now, the high court has loss that ability, which legal experts say was a crucial check on political power in Israel.

Israeli lawmakers celebrate by taking a selfie with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, center right in the foreground, after approving a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's divisive plan to reshape the country's justice system, on the floor of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Monday.
Maya Alleruzzo / AP
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AP
Israeli lawmakers celebrate by taking a selfie with Justice Minister Yariv Levin, center right in the foreground, after approving a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's divisive plan to reshape the country's justice system, on the floor of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on Monday.

For instance, the court recently used this power to block a politician who had been convicted of tax offenses from becoming Israel's finance minister.

Under the new law, the government will be able to hire and fire public servants without the intervention of the court.

Legal experts say that may also have an effect on the ongoing corruption trial of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who proposed the changes to the judiciary months ago.

What this means for Israel's future political landscape

Israel has no constitution and a unicameral legislature, and the weakening of political guardrails could produce what's known as a "majoritarian" government, according to the American Jewish Committee.

That means the "narrowest possible majority, perhaps in the heat of the moment, could upend minority rights and make other fundamental changes in the law by overturning a Supreme Court ruling," the group said.

In a statement, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called Monday's vote "unfortunate" and said it passed with the "slimmest possible majority" of lawmakers.

"We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess," she added. "The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue."

President Biden had expressed concern over the plan and told Israeli media on Sunday that he had urged the country's political leaders not to rush through the law.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joe Hernandez
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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