Demonstrators wave an Israeli flag on July 24, 2023 during demonstrations against the government’s planned judicial reform.

Menahem Kahan | Afp | Getty Images

Israel’s parliament began a final vote on Monday on controversial changes sought by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the judiciary, as last-minute talks continued to ease one of the country’s worst political crises sparked by his plans.

President Isaac Herzog, who has called the situation a “national emergency,” was still trying to reach a compromise on the administration’s court plans, which have sparked unprecedented nationwide protests, a person familiar with the matter said.

Police used a water cannon to disperse protesters opposing the trial campaign of Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition, and officers dragged away protesters who chained themselves to poles and blocked the road outside parliament.

The chances of reaching a compromise appeared slim as lawmakers began voting.

“You cannot reach agreements that will protect Israeli democracy with this government,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told Israeli TV channels in the Knesset minutes before the hour-long vote began.

With banks and businesses joining the protest, pressure mounted on Netanyahu, who was released from hospital on Monday morning after a two-night stay during which he was fitted with a pacemaker.

On the one hand, Netanyahu has been urged by Washington to reach a compromise with the opposition, while his hardline coalition partners are pushing for the legislation to go ahead and more judicial changes to follow.

The crisis has spread to the military, with protest leaders saying thousands of volunteer reservists will not report for duty if the government goes ahead with plans, and former top officials warning Israel’s war readiness could be at risk.

Netanyahu’s coalition, which had a comfortable majority in parliament, appeared poised to win a vote on a bill to limit the Supreme Court’s powers to overturn decisions by governments and ministers.

‘Catastrophe’

“We are on the road to disaster,” Lapid told lawmakers during a stormy debate. “If you vote for this bill, you will weaken the State of Israel, the people of Israel and the Israeli Defense Forces.”

It would be the first change written into law from a package that critics fear is aimed at curbing the independence of the judiciary, but which Netanyahu – who is on trial over corruption charges he denies – insists is needed to balance the branches of government.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who led the changes, championed a bill that would amend the law allowing the Supreme Court to overturn decisions it deems “unreasonable.”

“There is no reason to be afraid of this amendment. There are many reasons to consider it an important step to restore the balance between the branches of government as respect for the choice of the voters,” said Levin.

Netanyahu’s coalition has been determined to push back against what it describes as an overreach by the Supreme Court, which it says has become too politically interventionist.

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

The government announced its court plans in January, shortly after it was sworn in, raising concerns among allies abroad about Israel’s democratic health and disrupting the economy.

The shekel has weakened by around 8% since then.

Israel’s two largest banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, said they would allow workers to demonstrate without losing wages on Monday.

A forum of about 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike, and Azrieli and Big, two of Israel’s largest malls, said stores in their malls would remain closed.

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