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Protesters react after Israel passes disputed measure to overhaul judiciary

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Israelis woke up today to their three largest newspapers carrying a black front page.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The black pages were ads that protesters took out, calling it a dark day for democracy in Israel. Defying more than six months of street protests, the government passed a law limiting a check on its own power. Until now, the Supreme Court in Israel has had the right to reject some government actions it did not consider reasonable. So what happens now that the Knesset stripped that power away?

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem and joins me now. Good morning, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

FADEL: So what do things look like today in Israel?

ESTRIN: Doctors are on strike today protesting the law. Hospitals are operating on limited schedule. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on TV last night saying he was extending a hand to the opposition. And at the very same time, police trucks were spraying water on protesters who were blocking major roads for hours. There were some injuries. And also, on live TV, we saw, in parliament, a right-wing minister brush off a plea for compromise on the law while Netanyahu sat next to that minister and was just stone-faced, didn't say anything. And commentators today are calling that a symbol that Netanyahu, they say, isn't the one in the driver's seat here. It's his far-right cabinet ministers driving this new law. And one of them said, quote, "this is just the beginning."

FADEL: This is just the beginning. OK. So for Israel's government, let's take a broad look at this. How might the government use this law to advance its wider goals?

ESTRIN: Well, with this law, as Steve said, the Supreme Court can no longer use the clause of reasonability to block the hiring and firing of officials. And legal experts are concerned that the Israeli government could use this to replace professional watchdog officials throughout the civil service with, yes, people for the ultranationalist government, and that could help them rubber-stamp discriminatory policies against Palestinians, just for an example. One Palestinian lawyer told me about a case where the Supreme Court, in the past, blocked Israel from building its West Bank separation barrier right through the middle of a Palestinian village. And the court said that was unreasonable. And now the court won't be able to do that.

Now, experts say that there are still other legal principles the court can take in Israel to protect Palestinian rights. But advocates say this law is - you know, it's a bigger picture here. It's a first step in a wider move to change democratic institutions, to further target Palestinian rights and other things that an ultranationalist government doesn't like. For instance, the justice minister recently raised the case of Arab citizens moving into a Jewish-majority town as something that should be prevented.

FADEL: Wow. What will you be looking at in the coming days and weeks?

ESTRIN: Well, groups are already petitioning the Supreme Court, challenging this law. The question is, will the Supreme Court intervene? It never has intervened with the kind of law that was passed yesterday. It's equivalent to a constitutional amendment in Israel. And also, defense experts are worried about the readiness of Israel's military. Thousands of volunteer reservists are saying they will not serve now in protest. And there are many enemies on Israel's border, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who said this crisis in Israel puts Israel on the path of collapse. So Israel is worried about its security right at this moment.

FADEL: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, I'm sure we'll be hearing from you much more in the coming days. Thank you, Daniel.

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.
Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.