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Tens of thousands of Israelis converged on the Knesset building in Jerusalem to protest against the passage of a new law that would curb the powers of courts. Picture: BLOOMBERG
Tens of thousands of Israelis converged on the Knesset building in Jerusalem to protest against the passage of a new law that would curb the powers of courts. Picture: BLOOMBERG

Jerusalem — Israeli doctors began a 24-hour strike and black ads covered newspaper front pages on Tuesday in a furore over the hard-right government’s ratification of initial judicial changes that critics fear will endanger the independence of the courts.

A first bill curbing Supreme Court review of some government decisions passed in a stormy Knesset parliament on Monday after a walkout by legislators. Some accused long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of pushing Israel towards autocracy.

With demonstrations convulsing Israel for months, thousands took to the streets and scuffled with police on Monday night.

“A Black Day for Israeli Democracy,” said the ad on the front of top newspapers placed by a group describing itself as worried hi-tech workers.

The crisis has opened a deep divide in Israeli society and strained ties with its closest ally, the US, which called Monday’s vote “unfortunate”.

Britain urged Israel to maintain the independence of the courts, build consensus and preserve robust checks and balances.

Protest leaders said growing numbers of military reservists will no longer report for duty if the government continued with its plans. Former top brass have warned that Israel’s war readiness could be at risk.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid asked the reservists to hold off their no-show threat pending any Supreme Court ruling on appeals. Both a political watchdog group and the Israel Bar Association have filed challenges.

The Israel Medical Association ordered doctors to strike for 24 hours around the nation, though not in Jerusalem, which is the scene of escalating confrontations. It cited the removal of the Supreme Court’s ability to overrule, on the basis of “unreasonableness,” potential government involvement in decisions by health ministry staff.

The government was seeking an injunction compelling doctors to return to work.

Conscription controversy

Stoking opposition anger, Netanyahu’s ultraorthodox Jewish coalition partners said on Tuesday they will submit legislation shoring up exemption from mandatory military service for their constituents who are studying in seminaries. But Netanyahu’s Likud party said no such bill will be pursued for now.

First elected to top office in 1996 and now in his sixth term, Netanyahu, 73, is facing his biggest domestic crisis.

Casting the reforms as a redressing of balance among branches of government, he sought to calm the opposition — as well as Israel’s Western allies — by saying on Monday he hoped to achieve consensus on any further legislation by November.

Complicating Netanyahu’s position is a corruption trial in which he denies wrongdoing, and his weekend hospitalisation to receive a pacemaker. His religious-nationalist coalition’s expansion of settlements on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood has also weighed on relations with Washington.

In fresh violence, Israeli troops killed three Palestinian militants who opened fire on them from a car near the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday, Israel’s defence minister said.

Dogged by foreign investor flight, a swooning shekel and a threatened general strike by the Histadrut public sector union, finance minister Bezalel Smotrich told Army Radio: “The attempted casting of this as the end of democracy is simply false.”

He brushed off opposition speculation that Netanyahu, freed of Supreme Court intervention, would fire an attorney-general whom some ministers describe as recalcitrant on the reforms.

The military, Smotrich added, “is combat-ready and will remain combat-ready” despite the protesting reservists, whom he accused of trying to “put a gun to the head of the government”.

Reuters

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