Israeli parliament in uproar over Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans for judiciary

JERUSALEM (Reuters): Israeli lawmakers engaged in a shouting match on Monday in a parliamentary committee deciding on government plans to overhaul the judiciary, a move President Isaac Herzog has warned risks tipping the country into “constitutional collapse.”

The plans, which would give rightist Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greater control of appointments to the bench and weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation or rule against the executive, have triggered widespread protests.

The Knesset Constitution Committee voted to send the first chapter of the plan to the plenum for a first reading, after a rowdy start to the meeting in which at least three opposition lawmakers were thrown out forcibly, to shouts of “shame, shame.”

“You will burn up the country!,” Idan Roll of the centrist Yesh Atid party told Simcha Rothman, the panel chairman from the hard-right Religious Zionism bloc before being ushered out.

Netanyahu, currently on trial on corruption charges which he denies, says the changes are needed to curb activist judges who have overreached their powers to interfere in the political sphere.

Critics say they risk destroying Israel’s system of democratic checks and balances by weakening the courts, handing unbridled power to the executive and endangering human rights and civil liberties.

Tens of thousands have demonstrated against the plans in weekly protests in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities and a major demonstration is expected later on Monday to coincide with the move to vote on the bill in the full parliament.

Morning trains from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were packed with people, many carrying Israeli flags and protest signs, heading to the demonstration.

As well as the parliamentary opposition to Netanyahu’s right-wing government, warnings have come from Israel’s banks and tech sector that the changes risked undermining the civil institutions that underpin Israel’s economic prosperity.

On Sunday evening, in a rare intervention, head of state Herzog made a televised plea for consensus, saying that the bitterness had left Israel on the brink of “constitutional and social collapse.”

US President Joe Biden has urged Netanyahu to build consensus before pushing through far-reaching changes, saying in comments published by the New York Times on Sunday that an independent judiciary was one of the foundations of US and Israeli democracy.