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Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu softens judicial overhaul after Biden call

Eight of 15 justices backed nullifying an Israeli law proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu that curbed the Supreme Court's powers.

Eight of 15 justices backed nullifying an Israeli law proposed by Benjamin Netanyahu that curbed the Supreme Court's powers. Photo: AAP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has announced a softening of his hard-right government’s judicial overhaul plan, an apparent bid to calm more than two months of nationwide protests and misgivings voiced by Western allies.

The announcement followed a call on Netanyahu by United States President Joe Biden to seek compromise and consensus in the constitutional crisis.

But it was scorned by the centre-left political opposition and stepped-up demonstrations loomed.

The already-shaken shekel slipped another 0.4 per cent versus the US dollar.

Tel Aviv shares were 0.3 per cent lower.

Some MPs in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition cast the revisions as “capitulation”.

Wielding a parliamentary majority, Mr Netanyahu had looked set to ratify the package of reforms by the Knesset’s recess on April 2.

But most will now be shelved until it reconvenes on April 30, he and partners in the religious-nationalist coalition said.

The legislation still slated for ratification in the next two weeks would shake up Israel’s method of selecting judges – an issue at the heart of the controversy, with critics accusing Mr Netanyahu of trying to curb the independence of the courts.

The veteran premier – under trial on corruption charges he denies – insists he seeks balance among branches of government.

In Sunday’s phone conversation, Mr Biden said he would support a compromise on the judicial overhaul and encouraged checks and balances and building broad agreement, according to the White House.

Mr Netanyahu reassured the US president of the health of Israeli democracy, according to the prime minister’s office.

Monday’s coalition statement used more circumspect language than in the original bill introduced on January 4 but said it would continue to check the power of judges on the selection panel to use what it deemed their “veto” over nominations to the bench.

The statement further noted amendments made to the bill in a Knesset review session on Sunday, whereby the selection panel would be expanded from nine to 11 members as originally planned but with a make-up that grants the government less potential clout.

Previously, the bill envisaged the panel including three cabinet ministers, two coalition MPs and two public figures chosen by the government – spelling a seven to four-vote majority.

In its amended form, the bill envisages the panel being made up of three cabinet ministers, three coalition MPs, three judges and two opposition MPs.

That could make for a slimmer and less assured six to five majority for the government.

The amended bill further stipulates no more than two Supreme Court justices can be appointed by regular panel voting in a given Knesset session.

Any appointments beyond that would have to be approved by a majority vote including at least one judge and one opposition lawmaker among selection panel members.

The coalition statement said it was “extending a hand to anyone who genuinely cares about national unity and the desire to reach an agreed accord”.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid rejected the overture, saying nothing substantive had changed.

“This most recent coalition proposal is a blueprint for a hostile takeover of the justice system,” Mr Lapid said on Twitter.

The Black Flags activist group said demonstrations that have already shaken the country and reached into its normally apolitical military would be intensified.

It accused Mr Netanyahu of attempting “to put the protest to sleep with pretty words”.

-Reuters

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