TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition on Thursday passed the first of several laws that make up its contentious judicial overhaul. Protesters opposing the changes staged another day of demonstrations to raise alarm over what they see as Israel's descent toward autocracy.
Thousands protested throughout the country, blocking traffic on main highways and scuffling with police in unrest that shows no sign of abating as the overhaul moves ahead.
Netanyahu's coalition approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule because of 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 Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens a gaping chasm between Israelis over the judicial overhaul.
Netanyahu's office said he would be delivering “an important declaration” Thursday evening after Israeli media reported that his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, would publicly call for a halt to the legislative drive. Sara Netanyahu, the premier's minister's wife and informal advisor, issued a rare statement calling for broad compromise.
But after a brief meeting with Netanyahu, Gallant called off his announcement and the prime minister's address was delayed. Israeli media reported deep divisions within his Likud party, with top members threatening to resign if the legislation is frozen.
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 it has been overrun by a liberal judiciary. The government's plan has plunged the nearly 75-year-old state into one of its worst domestic crises.
“Either Israel will be a Jewish, democratic and progressive state or religious, totalitarian, failing, isolated and closed off. That's where they are leading us,” Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and a prominent supporter of the protest movement, told Israeli Army Radio.
The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society — including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country's military, seen as a beacon of stability by Israel's Jewish majority, is enmeshed in the political conflict, as a growing number of reservists are refusing to show up for duty over the changes. Israel's international allies have also expressed concern.
The law to protect Netanyahu passed in an early morning vote 61-47 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, or parliament, after a debate that ran through the night. Netanyahu, sitting by his justice minister and the overhaul's architect, Yariv Levin, was seen smiling and smirking during the vote.
It stipulates that a 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 country’s attorney general has faced growing calls by Netanyahu opponents to declare him unfit to rule because of his legal problems.
The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from direct involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a good governance organization, said it was challenging the law in court, in what could set up the first showdown between judges and the government over the legal changes. Experts say the overhaul could set off a constitutional crisis that would leave Israel in chaos over who should be obeyed, the government or the courts.
On Thursday, protesters launched a fourth midweek day of demonstrations. They blocked major thoroughfares, set tires ablaze near an important seaport and draped 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 around the country. Several protest leaders were among those arrested, organizers said.
Protesters blocked the main highway in seaside Tel Aviv and police used water cannons to disperse demonstrators in that city and Haifa in the north.
Netanyahu called on opposition leaders to “stop the anarchy immediately,” after what he said was an attack on Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic security agency.
Video on social media showed a protester swiping her flagpole in Dichter's direction, hitting him once on the head, but he appeared unharmed and continued walking. A spokesman for Dichter said the flagpole tapped his head lightly and that the protester also smacked his car with it.
The protests have grown increasingly intense, with crowds heckling and accosting Cabinet ministers in restaurants and during public appearances.
Thousands of secular Israelis staged a protest late Thursday in Bnei Brak, a large ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. Israeli media reported fireworks being fired by residents at protesters during an otherwise largely peaceful demonstration.
Police used force to disperse another protest by military reservists in the city of Petah Tivka. Omer Bar-Lev, until recently the minister in charge of police, was filmed being pushed by officers at the scene.
The overhaul crisis has magnified a longstanding rift between secular Jewish Israelis and religious ones over how much of a role religion should play in their day-to-day lives. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in government are central drivers of the overhaul because they believe the courts are a threat to their traditional way of life. In contrast, secular opponents to the changes fear they will open the door to religious coercion.
They also want the courts to halt exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men from military service, which is compulsory for most other Jewish males.
In addition to Thursday's demonstrations, tens of thousands of people have been showing up for weekly protests each Saturday night for more than two months.
Netanyahu's government rejected a compromise proposal earlier this month meant to ease the crisis. It said that it would slow the pace of the changes, pushing most of them to after a monthlong parliamentary recess in April.
But the government was plowing forward on a key part of the overhaul, which would grant the government control over who becomes a judge. The measure is expected to pass next week.
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 ever, is pushing the country toward authoritarianism with its overhaul, which they say upends the country's fragile system of checks and balances.
Israel's Palestinian minority has largely avoided the protests. Rights groups and Palestinians say Israel's democratic ideals have long been tarnished by the country's 55-year, open-ended occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state and the treatment of Palestinian Israeli citizens, who face discrimination in many spheres.
By TIA GOLDENBERG Associated Press
Associated Press reporter Isaac Scharf contributed to this report from Jerusalem.
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