Israeli lawmakers give first nod to new judicial overhaul bill

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli lawmakers on Tuesday gave an initial nod to a bill that limits Supreme Court power to rule against the government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would press on with contentious changes to the justice system.

In a stormy session broadcast live, Parliament’s constitution committee, dominated by Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious ruling coalition, voted in favour of the bill that limits “reasonableness” as a standard of judicial review.

At present, the Supreme Court can rule against government and elected officials’ decisions if they are deemed unreasonable.

“You have taken the first step today and with God’s help more steps to strengthen Israeli democracy will follow,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

After the committee vote, the shekel weakened by 0.3% against the dollar. The bill still has to pass three readings in parliament to be written into law.

The government’s legislative judicial push, unveiled soon after Netanyahu regained power in late December atop a hard-right cabinet, has set off unprecedented protests, stirred concerns for Israel’s democratic health and dented the economy.

The shekel has since weakened more than 5%.

On Monday, thousands of anti-government protesters converged on Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, some scuffling with police.

Netanyahu doused some of the furore in March by pausing the legislation and holding compromise talks with the opposition. Those negotiations proved fruitless, and he is now pursuing what he deems a scaled-back version of the overhaul.

Washington has urged Netanyahu to seek broad agreement on justice reforms but the opposition says the changes he seeks remain a danger to democracy and called on him not to press ahead with the bill which they say opens the door to corruption.

“This legislation is not meant to protect citizens but to protect politicians,” said a joint statement from opposition party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

Netanyahu has defended the changes as restoring balance between branches of government and redressing what his coalition allies see as judicial overreach.

Critics see the push as a disastrous bid by Netanyahu to curb court independence even as he argues his innocence in a long-running corruption trial.

(Additional reporting by Steven Scheer, Editing by William Maclean, Alexandra Hudson)