Israel passes law to protect Netanyahu as protests continue – KGET 17

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel’s parliament on Thursday passed the first of several bills making up its controversial judicial reform, as protesters opposed to the changes staged another day of demonstrations aimed at sounding the alarm over what they see as the country’s descent into autocracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being unable to manage his corruption trial and conflict-of-interest claims over his involvement in the law changes. Critics say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens the divide between Israelis over a judicial overhaul.

The legal changes have divided the nation between those who see the new policy as stripping Israel of its democratic ideals and those who think the country has been overrun by a liberal judiciary. The government’s plan plunged the nearly 75-year-old nation into one of its worst domestic crises.

“Either Israel will be a Jewish, democratic and progressive state or a religious, totalitarian, unsuccessful, isolated and closed one. This is where they are taking us,” Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and prominent supporter of the protest movement, told Israel Army Radio.

Opposition is rooted in broad sections of society — including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country’s military, seen by Israel’s Jewish majority as a beacon of stability, is embroiled in political conflict, with some reservists refusing to report for duty because of the changes. Israel’s international allies have also expressed concern.

The bill to protect Netanyahu was passed 61-47 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset.

It stipulates that the prime minister can only be deemed unfit to rule for health or mental reasons and that only he or his government can make that decision. It comes after the attorney general faced mounting calls from Netanyahu’s opponents to declare him unfit to manage his legal problems. The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from participating in the review of the law, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.

The Movement for Good Government in Israel, a good governance organization, said it was challenging the law in court, which could lead to the first showdown between judges and the government over the legal changes. Experts say the review could trigger a constitutional crisis that would leave Israel in a quandary over who to obey, the government or the courts.

On Thursday, protesters began the fourth day of demonstrations in the middle of the week. They blocked major roads, burned tires near an important seaport and hung a large Israeli flag and a banner with the country’s Declaration of Independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Police said they made several arrests across the country. Among those arrested was Shikma Bressler, one of the leaders of the protest, organizers said.

Protests are planned later in the day in a large ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. Organizers of the demonstration say the intention is to drive home to the community that their rights have been threatened by the overhaul. Ultra-Orthodox leaders see the demonstrations in their community as provocative.

The overhaul crisis has widened a long-standing rift between secular and religious Israeli Jews over how much role religion should play in their daily lives. Ultra-Orthodox MPs in the government are central to the overhaul because they believe the courts are a threat to their traditional way of life. In contrast, secular opponents of change fear it will open the door to religious coercion.

In addition to Thursday’s demonstration, tens of thousands of people have turned out for weekly protests every Saturday night for more than two months.

Netanyahu’s government rejected a compromise proposal earlier this month that was meant to ease the crisis. It said it would slow the pace of changes, pushing most of them until after the month-long parliamentary recess in April.

But the government was working on a key part of the overhaul, which would give the government control over who becomes a judge. The government says it has amended the original law to make the law more inclusive, but opponents have rejected the move, saying the change is cosmetic and will maintain government control over the appointment of judges. The measure is expected to be adopted next week.

Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he could find a way out of the charges through a legal review his government is advancing.

The government says the changes are necessary to restore balance between the executive and judiciary, which they say have become too interventionist in the way the country is run.

Critics say the government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is pushing the country toward authoritarianism with its reorganization, which they say undermines the country’s fragile system of checks and balances.

Human rights groups and Palestinians say Israel’s democratic ideals have long been tarnished by the 55-year, indefinite occupation of the land Palestinians seek for an independent state and the treatment of Palestinian Israeli citizens, who face discrimination in many spheres.

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