Israel’s parliament has passed a law limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed from office, signing into law the first in a series of contentious legal changes that have sparked months of protests.

The amendment, passed after a rancorous all-night debate that stretched into the early hours of Thursday, intensifies the bitter battle over a judicial overhaul pushed by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government that has plunged Israel into its deepest political crisis for years.

Critics have denounced Thursday’s amendment as aimed at protecting Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, from being removed from office over his legal woes. Supporters deny this and argue the new rules are needed to prevent the “annulment” of the democratic process.

The move is part of a broader set of changes — including giving the government and its allies control over the appointment of judges and limiting the top court’s ability to strike down laws — that have drawn hundreds of thousands of Israelis on to the streets in protests since the government first proposed them in January.

Demonstrations continued on Thursday, with hundreds of navy veterans setting fire to tyres outside the port of Ashdod, and protesters blocking major roads as part of an attempt to escalate the demonstrations and “paralyse” the country for a day.

Government officials say the changes are needed to rein in an activist judiciary that has pushed a partisan left-wing agenda. But critics see them as a fundamental threat to Israel’s checks and balances that will eviscerate minority protections, foster corruption and damage the economy.

Existing Israeli law allowed a prime minister to be removed, but did not spell out the circumstances in which this could occur. The new rules specify that a prime minister can be removed only on grounds of mental or physical ill health, and that only the cabinet or parliament have the right to do so.

Gali Baharav-Miara, Israel’s attorney-general, this year ordered Netanyahu not to get involved in his government’s judicial overhaul due to a conflict of interest stemming from his corruption trial, where he is fighting allegations of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.

Baharav-Miara’s order came amid speculation — which she denied — that she was considering ordering Netanyahu to step aside, something she would not be able to do after Thursday’s amendment.

Netanyahu has dismissed the charges against him as a politically motivated witch-hunt, and denied that the judicial reforms would have any impact on his personal situation.

Ofir Katz, an MP from Netanyahu’s Likud party who sponsored Thursday’s bill, said it would provide “stability”, by limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister could be removed against their will.

Opposition MPs lambasted the changes. Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid, the largest opposition party, accused the coalition of ratifying “a contemptible and corrupt personal piece of legislation”. “The citizens of Israel should know . . . Netanyahu has once again taken care of only himself,” he said.

Avigdor Lieberman said his Yisrael Beiteinu party would petition Israel’s top court to strike down the law. “We won’t allow the State of Israel to be turned into a monarchy of the Netanyahu family.”

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