Israel passes law protecting Netanyahu as protests continue

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Israel’s parliament has passed the first of several laws that make up its contentious judicial overhaul as protesters opposing the changes staged another day of demonstrations over what they see as the country’s descent toward autocracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule over his corruption trial and claims of a conflict of interest surrounding his involvement in the legal changes.

Critics say the law is tailor-made for Mr Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens a gaping chasm between Israelis over the judicial overhaul.

The legal changes have split the nation between those who see the new policies as stripping Israel of its democratic ideals and those who think the country has been overrun by a liberal judiciary.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/Pool Photo/AP)

The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society — including business leaders and top legal officials.

Even the country’s military is enmeshed in the political conflict, with some reservists refusing to show up for duty over the changes.

Israel’s international allies have also expressed concern.

On Thursday, protesters launched a fourth midweek day of demonstrations.

They blocked major roads, set tyres ablaze near an important seaport and draped a large Israeli flag and a copy of the country’s declaration of independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Israelis protest against plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system
Israelis protest against plans by the government to overhaul the judicial system (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Mr Netanyahu’s government rejected a compromise proposal earlier this month meant to ease the crisis.

It said it would slow the pace of the changes, pushing most of them until after a month-long recess in April.

But it was plowing forward on a key part of the overhaul, which would grant the government control over who becomes a judge.

The government says it amended the original Bill to make the law more inclusive but opponents rejected the move, saying the change is cosmetic and would maintain the government’s grip over the appointment of judges.

The measure was expected to pass next week.

Protesters blocked a motorway
Protesters blocked a motorway (Ariel Schalit/AP)

It stipulates a prime minister can only be deemed unfit to rule for health or mental reasons and only he or his government can make that decision.

It comes after the country’s attorney general has faced growing calls by opponents of Mr Netanyahu to declare him unfit to rule over his legal problems.

The attorney general has already barred Mr Netanyahu from involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.

Mr Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls.

He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he could find an escape route from the charges through the legal overhaul his government is advancing.

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

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

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