JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political allies pressed ahead Monday with their plan to overhaul the judiciary, advancing a bill that would protect the long-serving leader from calls that he be removed from office over his corruption charges.
The steps were the latest in a series of legislation seen by critics as concentrating power in the ruling coalition’s hands. The government has pledged to plow ahead with the legal changes despite widespread opposition.
Since taking office in December, Netanyahu and his far-right coalition have advanced a raft of legislation seeking to overhaul the country’s judicial system and further entrench the power of the executive. These have prompted widespread protests by a large section of Israeli society, with demonstrations drawing tens of thousands of people taking place weekly for the past two months.
Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and religious coalition allies say the judicial overhaul aims to rein in an activist Supreme Court. Critics say the measures will erode the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the governing majority in parliament.
Despite the outcry and calls for compromise on these issues, the government has been plowing ahead on its overhaul. A Knesset committee approved a bill on Monday that would only allow parliament to declare a prime minister unfit to rule for physical or mental reasons. Such a measure would require approval by three-quarters of the government, and could be overridden by the prime minister.
The law currently opens the door for a leader to be removed under other circumstances and the bill moving through parliament appears aimed at preventing Netanyahu from being forced from office due to his ongoing trial. Good governance groups and other critics have called on the country’s attorney general to deem Netanyahu unfit for office.
Netanyahu returned to power late last year after Israel’s fifth election in under four years. The campaign, like the previous four, focused on Netanyahu’s fitness to rule while facing serious legal problems. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, denies any wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a witch-hunt by biased media and law enforcement.
Speaking to members of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at the Israeli media, saying they are broadcasting a “never ending tsunami of fake news” against him. He reiterated his claim that the legal overhaul will strengthen Israeli democracy.
Opposition lawmaker Orna Barbivai said the bill was “a disgrace, which says the the prime minister is above the law.”
The bill was to be brought before parliament late Monday for an initial vote and requires additional votes before becoming law.
Parliament is also set to vote on another bill that would grant parliament the ability to overrule Supreme Court rulings and enact laws that had been stricken down. That bill would also require additional votes before being enshrined into law.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the past two months to protest Netanyahu’s program. They say that Netanyahu has a conflict of interest while on trial and is driven by personal grievances against the justice system. Business leaders, legal experts and retired military leaders have joined the demonstrations, and Israeli reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the program passes.
Israel’s Palestinian minority, which makes up some 20% of the population, has been largely absent, in part because they suffer from discrimination in Israel and and because of Israel’s treatment of their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
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