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Netanyahu MPs advance bill to weaken Israeli courts

Israel's parliament has advanced a bill that would let MPs pass laws that the Supreme Court cannot overturn - a key piece of legislation in Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies' proposed judicial overhaul that has divided the country.

The prime minister's governing coalition of ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties has pressed ahead with its legislative blitz despite calls for compromise and demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of Israelis to the streets during the past two months.

In an overnight session that stretched into early Tuesday morning, the Knesset gave initial approval to several pieces of legislation, including a bill protecting the prime minister from being declared unfit for office, or incapacitated, and another to allow settlements in the northern West Bank.

A third piece of legislation that was approved would let parliament pass laws impervious to judicial review, with a simple majority of 61 members in Israel's 120-seat parliament, the Knesset.

Each of the bills requires 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, make the Supreme Court toothless, and concentrate power in the hands of Mr Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority.

Business leaders, legal experts and retired military leaders have joined the protests against the judicial overhaul, and Israeli reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul passes.

Netanyahu returned to power in December, following the country's fifth election in under four years, at the head of Israel's most ultranationalist and religious government to date.

He is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, which he denies.