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A controversial judicial reform bill in Israel passes an initial vote in parliament

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Israel's controversial judicial overhaul plans are back.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

And so are anti-government street protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Non-English language spoken).

MARTÍNEZ: If all this sounds like deja vu, it is. Earlier this year, street protests forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze his plans to weaken the powers of Israel's judiciary. But now those plans are out of deep freeze. Last night, Netanyahu's far right coalition gave preliminary approval in parliament to one part of that plan.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is actually at a protest in Tel Aviv now, and he's with us from there. Daniel, hello.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So describe the scene for us.

ESTRIN: This is a reenergized nationwide non-violent protest movement that we're seeing now. Protesters are blocking major highways throughout the country. Police dispersed protesters with a water cannon in one place. I'm at a main downtown intersection in Tel Aviv. I saw police on horseback charging into hundreds of protesters in the street. I met one protester who had her foot trampled on by a police horse, Mor Dinar (ph), and I asked her what she was doing here.

MOR DINAR: Trying to protect our country from dictatorship because we believe in democracy. And we need the help of the U.S. to protect us and not give all the - all Netanyahu and his friends to overcome and control our country in unlegal (ph) ways.

ESTRIN: Now, this focus on the U.S. is actually a new tactic among the protesters. There is a big protest planned today outside a U.S. embassy building in Tel Aviv. And the idea is to keep the pressure on the Biden administration. President Biden has not invited Prime Minister Netanyahu to the White House yet. That is highly unusual.

Biden told CNN recently that Netanyahu's cabinet includes some of the most extreme members. The U.S. ambassador to Israel told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published yesterday that he warned Israel against going off the rails with this judicial overhaul.

MARTIN: So, Daniel, could you just remind us of what Netanyahu and his supporters are trying to do, and why people are so outraged about it?

ESTRIN: Well, this is Israel's most right-wing government in history. It thinks the judiciary in the country is just too liberal, and it wants to limit the judiciary's powers. Now, protesters say this is actually a threat to Israel's democratic separation of powers. Now, Netanyahu actually paused this overhaul plan because of massive protests earlier this year, and there were talks with the opposition, but those talks have now failed.

And so Netanyahu is rebooting his plan. And last night, parliament gave initial approval to a major change in how courts rule. This change would block the court from intervening in appointments and decisions of elected officials when the court believes that they are unreasonable. Legal experts are saying that if this bill actually passes, it will remove an important check on power in Israel.

MARTIN: So can you just tell us briefly where Israel is heading with all of this?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel's coalition wants to pass this law by the end of the month. That could lead to harsh crackdowns on the anti-government protesters in the streets. Israel's central bank governor says that all the uncertainty around the judicial overhaul is hurting the economy bad. It's weakened Israel's currency by almost 10% since the beginning of the year. Food and gas prices are rising.

And the problem for Netanyahu is that he cannot remain in power without the support of his far-right partners. The far right was demanding a major military offensive in the West Bank, and they saw that last week. So now the right is demanding these changes to the courts. And the question is, can this reenergized protest movement actually force Netanyahu to back off?

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you.

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.

Michel Martin
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered and host of the Consider This Saturday podcast, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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