Israel’s parliament has begun a referendum on limiting the power of the Supreme Court

  • The bill would limit the Supreme Court’s power to overturn government decisions
  • Netanyahu under pressure from Washington to compromise
  • The struggle also spread to the army

JERUSALEM, July 24 (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament began a final vote on Monday on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s contested changes to the judiciary.

President Isaac Herzog has called the impasse a “national emergency” and is trying to reconcile the government’s judicial plans that have sparked unprecedented nationwide protests, a person familiar with the matter said.

Police used water cannons to disperse demonstrators against a judicial campaign by Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition.

Chances of compromise appeared slim as lawmakers began voting.

“You cannot reach agreements with this government that will preserve Israel’s democracy,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told Israeli television channels in the Knesset minutes before the hours-long vote began.

As banks and businesses joined the protest, pressure mounted on Netanyahu, who was hospitalized Monday morning and fitted with a pacemaker after a two-night stay.

On the one hand, Netanyahu has been urged by Washington to compromise with the opposition, while his hard-line coalition partners are still pushing legislation to pursue judicial reforms.

The crisis has spilled over into the military, with opposition leaders saying thousands of voluntary reservists will not report for duty if the government continues the plans, and former top officials have warned that Israel’s combat readiness could be at risk.

Nevertheless, with a comfortable majority in parliament, Netanyahu’s coalition looked set to win a vote on a bill that would limit the Supreme Court’s powers to overrule decisions made by governments and ministers.

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“We are heading for a catastrophe,” Lapid told lawmakers during the stormy debate. “If you vote for this bill, you will weaken Israel, the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces.”

It would be the first change written into law from a package critics fear is aimed at curbing judicial independence, but Netanyahu – who is on trial on corruption charges he denies – insists there is a need for balance between the branches of government.

Law Minister Yariv Levin backed the bill, which would amend the law to overturn decisions deemed “unfair” by the Supreme Court.

“There is no reason to fear this amendment. There are many reasons to see it as an important step toward restoring balance between the branches of government in a way that respects the will of the voters,” Levin said.

Netanyahu’s coalition is determined to push back against what it describes as an overreach by the Supreme Court, saying it has become too much of a political intervention.

Critics say Monday’s amendment was rushed through parliament and opens the door to abuses of power by removing one of the few effective checks on executive power in a country without a formal written constitution.

The government announced its judicial plans in January, soon after taking office, prompting concern among allies abroad that they could undermine Israel’s democratic health and economy.

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The shekel has weakened by about 8%.

Israel’s two biggest banks, Leumi ( LUMI.TA ) and Hapoalim ( POLI.TA ), said on Monday they would allow workers to strike without losing wages.

A forum of 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike and two of Israel’s biggest malls, Azrieli ( AZRG.TA ) and Big ( BIG.TA ), said stores in their shopping centers would be closed.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Steven Scheer; Editing by Mirel Fahmy and Tomasz Janowski

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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