Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has advanced a plan to overhaul the country’s legal system, defying a mass uproar among Israelis and calls for restraint from the United States.
A vote early on Tuesday marked only preliminary approval for the plan. But it raised the stakes in a battle that drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets, sparked criticism from influential sectors of society and widened the rifts in an already polarised country.
The vote gave initial approval to a plan that would give Mr Netanyahu’s coalition more power over who becomes a judge.
It came after more than seven hours of debate that dragged on past midnight.
Critics say it will upend the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has a conflict of interest.
Simcha Rothman, a far-right legislator leading the legislative initiative, presented the proposal to the Knesset during a stormy debate.
Several opposition legislators were escorted out of the hall by security for screaming at him, while a spectator was carried away by guards from the viewing gallery after smashing the protective glass in anger.
The standoff has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide among Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.
“We are fighting for our children’s future, for our country’s future. We don’t intend to give up,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told a meeting of his party in the Knesset as protesters massed outside.
Small groups demonstrated outside the homes of some legislators, preventing one member of Netanyahu’s Likud party from taking her special-needs daughter to school.
Mr Netanyahu accused the demonstrators of inciting violence and said they were ignoring the will of the people who voted the government into power last November.
The premier and his political allies denied the legitimacy of the short-lived previous government which briefly unseated him in 2021.
“The people exercised their right to vote in the elections and the people’s representatives will exercise their right to vote here in Israel’s Knesset. It’s called democracy,” he told his Likud party.
Mr Netanyahu showed no sign of backing down before the vote despite the pressure, but left the door open for dialogue on the planned changes.
Monday’s vote on part of the legislation is the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition’s determination to forge ahead and is seen by many as an act of bad faith.
Israel’s figurehead president has urged the government to freeze the legislation and seek a compromise with the opposition. Leaders in the booming tech sector have warned that weakening the judiciary could drive away investors.
Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in Tel Aviv and other cities each week.
Last week, 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan – the largest protest in the city in years.
For a second straight week, thousands of people poured into the city from around the country for a mass demonstration against the planned changes. Many waved Israeli flags, blew horns and held signs reading “saving democracy”.
“All the steps that are going to take place now in the Knesset will change us to a pure dictatorship,” said Itan Gur Aryeh, a 74-year-old retiree. “All the power will be with the government, with the head of the government and we’ll all be without rights.”
Earlier in the day, protesters launched a sit-down demonstration at the entrance of the homes of some coalition legislators and briefly halted traffic on Tel Aviv’s main highway.
Hundreds waved Israeli flags in Tel Aviv and also in the northern city of Haifa, holding signs reading “resistance is mandatory”.
“We’re here to demonstrate for the democracy. Without democracy there’s no state of Israel. And we’re going to fight till the end,” said Marcos Fainstein, a protester in Tel Aviv.
The overhaul has prompted otherwise stoic former security chiefs to speak out, and even warn of civil war.
In a sign of the rising emotions, a group of army veterans in their 60s and 70s stole a decommissioned tank from a war memorial site and draped it with Israel’s declaration of independence before being stopped by police.
The plan has even sparked rare warnings from the US, Israel’s chief international ally.
US ambassador Tom Nides told a podcast over the weekend that Israel should “pump the brakes” on the legislation and seek a consensus on reform that would protect Israel’s democratic institutions.