The overhaul will introduce sweeping changes aimed at curbing the judiciary's powers; limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions and changing how judges are selected.
Israeli lawmakers have passed through parliament a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive plan to reshape the country’s justice system despite massive protests that have exposed unprecedented fissures in Israeli society.
MPs annulled a law which allowed the Supreme Court to review and overturn government decisions or appointments and is seen by the opposition as a fundamental democratic guarantee against abuses of power.
The law was passed by all 64 members of the governing coalition. The 56 MPs from the opposition bloc absented themselves from the vote.
The ballot comes just hours after Netanyahu was released from a hospital. The plan has tested the delicate social ties that bind the country, rattled the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly drawn concern from its closest ally, the United States.
Opposition lawmakers screamed out “shame” as the vote, the second of three required, approached.
Demonstrators, many of whom feel the very foundations of their country are being eroded by the government's plan, stepped up their opposition, blocking a road leading up to parliament before the vote.
Efforts to find a last-ditch compromise were underway, with President Isaac Herzog shuttling between the sides, including a meeting at the hospital where Netanyahu was treated, to find an agreement on the way forward. But it was unclear whether those would result in a compromise ahead of the final vote.
“We are headed for disaster,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid in a speech. “If you vote today on this bill, you are bringing the end of the people’s army closer. You are strengthening Israel’s enemies. You are harming the security of the state of Israel.”
Protesters banging on drums and blowing horns blocked a road leading to the Knesset, and police used water cannons to push them back. The protest movement said one of its leaders was arrested.
“The state of Israel stands before destruction and ruin that is being brought upon it by a gang of extremists and kooks. We must go up to Jerusalem today!” one branch of the protest movement called out to demonstrators on social media.
Israeli media reported that a consortium of businesses announced late Sunday that some of their members wouldn't open on Monday to protest the government's plans, leading to big mall chains and some gas stations sealing their doors.
The dramatic events were being watched closely in Washington, where the Biden administration has frequently spoken out against Netanyahu's government and its overhaul plan. In a statement to the news site Axios late Sunday, Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes that were sparking so much division.
“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this - the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.
Netanyahu’s sudden hospitalisation for the implant of a pacemaker added another dizzying twist to an already dramatic series of events that have bitterly divided his country and are certain to shape Israel's future.