Israel passes law to limit Supreme Court power

By Christian Edwards, CNN

Updated 1945 GMT (0345 HKT) July 24, 2023
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2:42 p.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Netanyahu, in address to the nation, says he is fulfilling the will of Israeli voters

From CNN's Hadas Gold and Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is surrounded by lawmakers at a session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Israel, Monday, July 24.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is surrounded by lawmakers at a session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Israel, Monday, July 24. Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Addressing the nation Monday evening after his government passed a controversial law to limit the power of the Supreme Court, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was fulfilling the will of the voters.

"Fulfilling the will of the voter is by no means the end of democracy, it is the essence of democracy," Netanyahu said, adding that the passage of the law was "a necessary democratic move."

He blamed the opposition for refusing to compromise, but did not say what compromises the governing coalition had offered.

As he did in a speech last week, he urged military reservists not to refuse to serve. 

"We all know that the Israel Defense Forces relies on dedicated reservists who love the country. The call for refusal harms the security of all citizens of the country," he said. "I call on you, our brothers and sisters who serve in the reserves — leave the service in the IDF out of the political debate."

1:05 p.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Former US ambassador reiterates call to reconsider US military assistance to Israel

From CNN's Zeena Saifi in Abu Dhabi

Former United States Ambassador to Israel and former US Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations Martin Indyk has called on Israel to “consider standing on its own two feet” with regard to the military aid it receives from Washington.  

In an interview with CNN’s Lynda Kinkade Monday, Indyk said Israel should start “weaning itself off its dependence on US military assistance.”

“Israel would be better off in my view if it were not dependent on this security assistance handout from the United States and could turn the relationship into a relationship of equals rather than a relationship of dependency,” he said.

The US has never considered withdrawing aid to Israel, but US lawmakers have recently been calling for the aid to come with restrictions. Indyk said, however, that the topic of aid to Israel is a “sacred cow” that enjoys strong bipartisan support, and the likelihood of it being challenged by Washington is “between zero to none.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Indyk and Dan Kurtzer, another former ambassador to Israel, said it was time to start reconsidering US aid to Israel, which amounts to over $3.8 billion dollars annually, according to the State Department.

 Indyk spoke to CNN hours after Israel’s Knesset passed the controversial “reasonableness” bill by a vote of 64-0.

“It’s a very dark day for Israel. In its 75-year history, it hasn’t faced this kind of threat to its unity caused by an extremist government that’s pushing an anti-democratic legislative agenda that’s generating huge opposition…it’s very dangerous not only for Israel’s internal cohesion but for the message it sends its enemies," he said.
2:16 p.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Police use "skunk water" on demonstrators in Jerusalem

From CNN’s Fred Pleitgen and Hadas Gold in Jerusalem

Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, Monday, July 24.
Israeli police use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking a road during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, in Jerusalem, Monday, July 24. Mahmoud Illean/AP

Israel Police used foul-smelling "skunk water" against protesters blocking Begin Highway, one of the major roads through Jerusalem, on Monday evening, CNN teams in the area saw and smelled.

Police have not previously used skunk water against anti-overhaul demonstrators.

Thousands of protesters have gathered outside the Knesset and along the Begin Highway Monday, to demonstrate against the passing of the so-called "reasonableness" bill which will strip the Supreme Court of certain powers.

2:19 p.m. ET, July 24, 2023

US calls Israeli judicial overhaul vote "unfortunate"

From CNN's Kevin Liptak and Jennifer Hansler

A general view of the White House on June 12.
A general view of the White House on June 12. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The Israeli parliament's vote stripping the Supreme Court of certain powers is "unfortunate," the White House said Monday, calling for "consensus" amid major protests.

"As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major democratic changes to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible," press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said following Monday's vote.

"It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority," she said. "We understand talks are ongoing and likely to continue over the coming weeks and months to forge a broader compromise even with the Knesset in recess. The United States will continue to support the efforts of President Herzog and other Israeli leaders as they seek to build a broader consensus through political dialogue."

Ahead of the vote, Biden warned Israel’s government against moving ahead with its controversial judicial overhaul.

“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,” Biden said Sunday in a statement provided to CNN.

Biden has been unusually outspoken about the judicial overhaul proposal, suggesting it amounts to an erosion of democratic institutions and could undermine US-Israel relations.

He raised concerns directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly during a phone call last week.

After the call — which Netanyahu’s office described as “warm” and claimed included an invitation to the United States for a meeting — Biden called in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to the Oval Office to make clear his stance on the judicial overhaul, urging Israeli leaders "not to rush" and "to seek the broadest possible consensus."

It’s unusual for the Biden administration to weigh in forcefully on another country’s internal politics, underscoring how seriously the President views the current situation in Israel.

11:23 a.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Six months in, Israel's mass protests show no sign of slowing

From CNN staff

Protesters attend a rally in Jerusalem against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan on March 27.
Protesters attend a rally in Jerusalem against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan on March 27. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Mass protests have engulfed Israel since Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plans to weaken the country's courts were first announced in January – and they are unlikely to stop soon.

As lawmakers passed the controversial “reasonableness” bill on Monday, protesters formed human chains outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, withstanding blasts from water cannons fired by Israeli police. 

Others gathered outside the Supreme Court, watching the vote unfold via a live stream shown on big screens, loudly booing and crying “shame” as the bill was voted through.

Israelis have protested against Netanyahu’s package of reforms for more than 29 weeks. The first “wave” of protests crested in March, when more than half a million Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv, with many carrying flags and chanting slogans including “Israel will not be a dictatorship.”

That month, the country’s largest trade union announced a “historic” strike shutting down transportation, universities, restaurants and retailers, which brought much of Israel’s economy to a standstill. For a time, the protests seemed to achieve their aim: Netanyahu was forced to back down on his plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary.

He said he would delay votes on the remaining legislation until after the Knesset’s Passover Recess in April “to give time for a real chance for a real debate.” In a televised address, Netanyahu said he was “aware of the tensions” and was “listening to the people.”

“Out of the responsibility to the nation, I decided to delay… the vote, in order to give time for discussed,” he added.

However, he indicated that the pause would be temporary, stressing that the overhaul was necessary.

Protesters link arms as they attempt to block a road leading to the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday.
Protesters link arms as they attempt to block a road leading to the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday. Ammar Awad/Reuters

Protests continued to simmer throughout this delay. In July, two weeks before the “reasonableness” bill passed, protesters staged a “day of disruption,” snarling traffic in Tel Aviv and causing chaos at Ben Gurion airport.

Since early Monday morning, thousands of protesters have surrounded the Knesset, locking arms and sitting in the streets to show their opposition to the bill -- in a demonstration that looks set to swell into the evening.

10:51 a.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Former Israeli PM Lapid urges military reservists to wait for court decision before refusing to serve

From CNN's Hadas Gold, Richard Allen Greene and Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at an event in Tel Aviv in August 2022.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at an event in Tel Aviv in August 2022. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid urged military reservists “whose hearts were broken today” not to refuse to serve until the Supreme Court has ruled on the reasonableness law passed by the government earlier Monday.

Ahead of Monday's vote, more than 1,000 Israel Air Force reserve officers had vowed to stop volunteering if the bill passed. But Lapid urged caution following the result.

“Don't stop serving as long as we don't know what the ruling will be,” Lapid said.

Lapid said he would file a petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday to block the law.

The chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces had also warned the reservists against taking that step. 

“No service members have the right to say that they will no longer serve,” he said in an open letter to the military on Sunday.

“I call on all reservists, even in these complex days, to separate civil protests from reporting for duty to the security services. The calls to not report for duty harm the IDF and its readiness,” Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Israel’s top military officer, said in the letter.

10:29 a.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Israeli stocks fall as government passes "reasonableness" bill

From CNN's Robert North

Israeli stocks fell after lawmakers on Monday passed a law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions it deems unreasonable, the first part of a planned judicial overhaul that has sparked six months of street protests as well as fierce criticism from the White House.

The TA-35, Israel’s main index, was trading more than 2% lower as news of the vote emerged.

The index had been enjoying a rally in recent weeks, climbing more than 6% over the last month. The Israeli Shekel was also weaker against the dollar, dropping just under 1%.

10:39 a.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Vote passes as Netanyahu battles health issues

From CNN staff

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Aryeh Deri, left, during a parliament session in Jerusalem on Monday.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Aryeh Deri, left, during a parliament session in Jerusalem on Monday. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

The passage of the "reasonableness" bill on Monday came as questions swirled over the health of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been admitted to hospital twice in recent days.

Netanyahu was first admitted to hospital two Saturdays ago; his office said at the time that he had experienced dizziness, while Israeli media reported that he fainted. He was released the following day after doctors at the Sheba Medical Center fitted him with a heart monitor.

Netanyahu was hospitalized again this past weekend and was fitted with a pacemaker early Sunday, his office said. The procedure happened at Tel Hashomer Hospital and the Prime Minister was sedated during the procedure.

Roy Beinart, director of the Davidai Center for Rhythm Disturbances and Pacing at Sheba Medical Center, said Netanyahu had the heart monitor implanted because of a known conduction disorder – another name for a heart block.

Beinart said doctors had known about the condition “for many years.”

Netanyahu released a short video statement later Sunday, saying he was “doing great” after the operation.

“I would like to thank the many of you who have asked how I am doing. I am doing great. Tomorrow morning I will join my colleagues in the Knesset,” Netanyahu said in the 25-second video.

He was released on Monday and was in parliament for its vote on the judicial bill.

Israel's Parliament holds a session in Jerusalem on Monday.
Israel's Parliament holds a session in Jerusalem on Monday. Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

9:59 a.m. ET, July 24, 2023

Why do these changes matter?

From CNN's Hadas Gold, Richard Allen Greene and Amir Tal in Jerusalem

Protestors against the reform wave the Israeli flag as they climb the entrance road to Jerusalem on July 22.
Protestors against the reform wave the Israeli flag as they climb the entrance road to Jerusalem on July 22. Matan Golan/Sipa USA/AP

The changes proposed by the government amount to most extreme shakeup for Israel’s judiciary since its founding in 1948.

Israel, which has no written constitution but only a set of quasi-constitutional basic laws, has had a relatively powerful Supreme Court, which supporters of the changes argue is problematic.

But the Supreme Court is the only check on the power of the Knesset and the government, since the executive and legislative branches are always controlled by the same governing coalition.

The prime minister and his supporters argue that the Supreme Court has become an insular, elitist group that does not represent the Israeli people. They say it has overstepped its role, getting into issues it should not rule on.  

Defending his plans, the prime minister has pointed to countries like the United States, where politicians control which federal judges are appointed and approved.  

But critics say the overhaul will destroy the only avenue available to provide checks and balances in the governing of the country. They also warn it will hurt rights not enshrined in Israel’s basic laws, like minority rights and freedom of expression.

Netanyahu rules over the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, including both ultra-nationalist and ultra-religious parties. Some members of the government have come under fire for expressing extremist views.

According to polling released in February by the Israel Democracy Institute, only a minority of Israelis support the changes. The vast majority – 72% – want a compromise to be reached and, even then, 66% think the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws and 63% of Israelis think the current method of appointing judges should stay as it is.

Millions of Israelis oppose the bill, including dozens of business leaders. Even Netanyahu’s own defense minister, Yoav Gallant, has called several times for delaying the overhaul in order to seek broad consensus. Netanyahu said he was dismissing Gallant earlier this year for criticizing the overhaul, but never went through with the firing.

A group of 150 leading Israeli companies went on strike Monday to protest Monday’s bill.

Opposition to the overhaul has also reached Israel’s security establishment with members of the military protesting the bill and more than 1,000 Air Force reservists vowing to stop volunteering if Monday’s bill passes.