Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second right, attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister s office in Jerusalem Sunday, March 19, 2023. AP
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule over 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.
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 the country has been overrun by a liberal judiciary. The government's plan has plunged the nearly 75-year-old nation into one of its worst domestic crises.
The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society — including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country's military is enmeshed in the political conflict, as some reservists are refusing to show up for duty over the changes. Israel's international allies have also expressed concern.
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 copy of the country’s Declaration of Independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City.
That's in addition to tens of thousands of people who 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 recess in April.
But it was plowing forward on a key part of the overhaul, which would grant the government control over who becomes a judge. The government says it amended the original bill to make the law more inclusive, but opponents rejected the move, saying the change was cosmetic and would maintain the government's grip over the appointment of judges. The measure was expected to pass next week.
The law to protect Netanyahu passed 61-47 in Israel's 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.
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 over his legal problems. The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.
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.