JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli parliament on Monday advanced a bill that would make it harder to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the corruption charges against him, as it plowed ahead with a broader plan to overhaul the country’s legal system in defiance of mass protests.
Lawmakers in the Knesset gave preliminary approval during a late-night vote on the bill, which would allow the parliament to declare a prime minister unfit to rule only for physical or mental reasons.
The body was expected to vote later on a measure that would allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court rulings and enact laws that had been struck down. Both bills require additional votes before being enshrined into law.
The steps were the latest in a series of moves by Netanyahu’s coalition to overhaul Israel’s legal system. The prime minister and his allies say the effort is aimed at reining in an activist court. Critics say the drive would upend the country’s democratic checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority.
Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and religious coalition allies have pledged to plow ahead with the legal changes despite demonstrations by tens of thousands of Israeli protesters over the past two months. Business leaders, legal experts and retired military leaders have joined the protests, and Israeli reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul passes.
In a late-night vote, the Knesset moved forward a bill that would protect Netanyahu from calls to oust him, replacing current law that opens the door for a leader to be removed under other circumstances. The new bill would require approval by three-quarters of the government, and could be overridden by the prime minister.
The measure has personal importance to Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year after Israel’s fifth election in under four years. He is on trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, and denies the allegations. The proceedings have dragged on for nearly three years.
Good governance groups and other critics have called on the country’s attorney general to deem Netanyahu unfit for office.
Speaking to members of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at the Israeli media, saying they are broadcasting a “never ending tsunami of fake news” against him. He reiterated his claim that the legal overhaul will strengthen Israeli democracy.
Opposition lawmaker Orna Barbivai said the bill was “a disgrace, which says the the prime minister is above the law.”
Israel’s Palestinian minority, which makes up some 20% of the population, has been largely absent from the protests, in part because they suffer from discrimination in Israel and and because of Israel’s treatment of their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.