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Israeli parliament votes on judicial overhaul that has sparked mass protests

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Israel, where the parliament, or Knesset, already did vote today on a proposal that has been tearing Israeli society apart, the right-wing government passed one of its changes to reduce the power of the judiciary and increase the power of the government itself. This comes after six months of protests from Israelis concerned that their government will have unchecked power. NPR's Daniel Estrin is standing amid protesters in Jerusalem. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hey, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's happening now that the vote has been called and the measure has passed?

ESTRIN: Well, I'm - was with protesters as they marched onto the Supreme Court. They are now (inaudible) the roads in front of the Supreme Court. You know, the entire political opposition boycotted this vote and walked out of the parliament in protest. They shouted on the parliament floor, shame, shame, shame. And this is the moment that hundreds of thousands of protesters had been fearing for all of these months. It is the government's first successful effort at a - you know, a broader raft of legislation they hope to pass to completely remake the balance of powers in Israel. They want to give the government some unchecked powers. And I want you to listen to one of the protesters, Arbel Moyad (ph).

ARBEL MOYAD: I'm feeling horrible. Everyone here is feeling horrible. The law is passed. They want to make Israel full of dictatorship. They want to pass laws that will discriminate LGBT, discriminate Palestinians, discriminate the Supreme Court, and discriminate all the human rights.

ESTRIN: And he's saying that because, you know, this is Israel's most right-wing government in history. They have an ultranationalist, ultrareligious agenda, and many Israelis are afraid that their way of life is in danger.

INSKEEP: What is the power that the Supreme Court had up to now that is being taken away by this measure that was just passed?

ESTRIN: The Supreme Court had a power called the reasonableness clause. So it allowed the court to block government appointments and decisions that it thought was extremely unreasonable without the public interest in mind. So example the - for example, the court recently used that power to block a politician convicted of tax offenses from being appointed the finance minister. They decided that was unreasonable, and that man is not serving as the finance minister. Now, with this new law, the government may hire and fire public officials as it pleases without the court intervening - so we're talking civil service gatekeepers, attorney general, state prosecutor. The legal experts I've been speaking to say this makes the government have a - truly, an unchecked power.

INSKEEP: Well, what does that mean, given that it is this particular government at this particular moment in time?

ESTRIN: First of all, it means that leaders have been concerned about Israel's security because of the (inaudible) of this law. We have thousands of military reservists who have been threatening they're not going to show up for service in protest if this law passes. I met one reservist who was blocking cars in the streets just now. He is a reservist in an artillery battalion, Yotam Lifshitz (ph), and he says he's not showing up for duty anymore. Here he is.

YOTAM LIFSHITZ: Any training, any service in the West Bank, any - anything this government actually puts out from their own initiative, I'm not going to take part in any of it.

ESTRIN: And now, Steve, this sets up Israel on an unprecedented path toward, potentially, a constitutional crisis. The Supreme Court will have to decide, are they going to block this law that essentially blocks them?

INSKEEP: Isn't there a question of a corruption trial for the prime minister that he might like to go away?

ESTRIN: That actually could be an implication of this new law. Legal experts think that the government's next steps could be sidelining the attorney general with a sort of yes man, a yes person, who could have the power to cancel Netanyahu's corruption trial or even offer him a plea bargain that is favorable to him.

INSKEEP: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Thanks so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.