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Protests mount after Israel passes controversial judicial bill

Israeli doctors began a 24-hour strike and black ads covered newspaper front pages in a furore over the hard-right government’s ratification of the first part of judicial reforms that critics fear endanger independence of the courts.

The bill curbing Supreme Court review of some government decisions passed in a stormy Knesset parliament on Monday after a walkout by lawmakers.

Some accused long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of pushing Israel towards autocracy.

With demonstrations convulsing Israel for months, thousands took to the streets and scuffled with police on Monday night.

“A Black Day for Israeli Democracy,” said the ad on the front of major newspapers on Tuesday, placed by a group describing itself as worried hi-tech workers.

The crisis has opened a deep divide in Israeli society and strained ties with Israel’s closest ally, the United States, which called Monday’s vote “unfortunate”.

Britain urged Israel to maintain the independence of courts, build consensus and preserve robust checks and balances.

Protest leaders said growing numbers of military reservists would no longer report for duty if the government continued with its plans. Former top brass have warned that Israel’s war-readiness could be at risk.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid asked the reservists to hold off their no-show threat pending any Supreme Court ruling on appeals.

Both a political watchdog group and the Israel Bar Association have filed challenges.

The Israel Medical Association ordered doctors to strike for 24 hours around the nation, though not in Jerusalem, which is the scene of escalating confrontations.

It cited the removal of the Supreme Court’s ability to overrule, on the basis of “unreasonableness”, potential government involvement in decisions by Health Ministry staff.

Israel Medical Association chairman Zion Hagay said the strike was needed to discourage emigration by doctors angered by the step.

“We are holding back doctors who want to quit and move abroad,” public broadcaster Kan quoted him as saying.

The government was seeking an injunction compelling doctors to return to work.

Stoking opposition fury, Mr Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish coalition partners said on Tuesday they would submit legislation shoring up exemption from mandatory military service for their constituents who are studying in seminaries.

But Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party said no such bill would be pursued for now.

First elected to top office in 1996 and now in his sixth term, Mr Netanyahu, 73, is facing his biggest domestic crisis.

Casting the reforms as a redressing of balance among branches of government, he sought to calm the opposition – as well as Israel’s Western allies – by saying on Monday he hoped to achieve consensus on any further legislation by November.

Complicating Mr Netanyahu’s position is a corruption trial in which he denies wrongdoing, and his weekend hospitalisation to receive a pacemaker.

His religious-nationalist coalition’s expansion of settlements on occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood has also weighed on relations with Washington.

-Reuters

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