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Why is Israel’s judicial overhaul so divisive?

Netanyahu’s allies say the overhaul will rein in the power of unelected judges. But protesters say the overhaul amounts to regime change, pushing Israel toward autocracy

A demonstrator waves a colored Israeli flag during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government
A demonstrator waves a colored Israeli flag during a protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, July 24, 2023.Ariel Schalit (AP)

For seven months, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judiciary and weaken the Supreme Court.

On Monday, the first piece of that legislative package passed: Lawmakers approved a measure that prevents judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.”

Here’s a look at what the overhaul is — and why it has drawn the most sustained and intense demonstrations the country has ever seen.

What’s in the overhaul?

The overhaul calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary.

The proposals include a bill that would allow a simple majority in parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Another would give parliament the final say in selecting judges.

Netanyahu’s ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious allies say the package is meant to restore power to elected officials — and reduce the powers of unelected judges.

Protesters, who make up a wide cross section of Israeli society, fear the overhaul will push Israel toward autocracy. They say it is a power grab fueled by various personal and political grievances by Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption charges, and his allies.

On Monday, parliament approved a bill that takes away the Supreme Court’s power to override government decisions that the court finds “unreasonable.”

Proponents say the current “reasonability” standard gives judges excessive powers over decision making by elected officials. But critics say that removing the standard, which is invoked only in rare cases, would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or firings and open the door to corruption.

Protesters say Netanyahu and his allies want to change the law so they can appoint cronies to government posts — and particularly so that they can fire the country’s independent attorney general, according to Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

The measures “make it more difficult to conduct oversight” over arbitrary decisions of elected officials, said Yohanan Plesner, the institute’s president. “This is one chapter of a broader plan and program of the government to weaken the checks and balances.”

Netanyahu has dismissed accusations that the plan would destroy Israel’s democratic foundations as absurd. “This is an attempt to mislead you over something that has no basis in reality,” he said.

Why are protesters so determined to protect the judiciary?

Given Israel’s relatively weak system of checks and balances, the judiciary plays a large role in checking executive power in the country.

In the U.S. for example, Congress has two houses that operate independently of the president and can limit his power. But in Israel, the prime minister and his majority coalition in parliament work in tandem.

That leaves the judiciary as “the only check on governmental power,” according to constitutional law professor Amichai Cohen.

Israel also has minimal local governance and lacks a formal constitution. This means that most of the power is centralized in parliament, Cohen said. The “basic laws” — foundational laws that experts describe as a sort of informal constitution — can be changed at any time by a bare majority.

With the overhaul, Cohen said, the Israeli parliament now threatens to further consolidate its power by weakening the judiciary.

“The government can do whatever it wants, because it controls the ability to change even the basic laws,” Cohen said.

Historically, the Israeli judiciary has played a role in protecting the rights of minorities, from Palestinian citizens of Israel to noncitizens and African asylum seekers, Cohen said.

By weakening the judiciary, critics say, Israel’s government — led by a male-dominated coalition whose members have advocated full annexation of the occupied West Bank, discriminating against LGBTQ+ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and limiting the rights of women — will be granted near-total control.

“It will be a hollow democracy,” said Fuchs.

Didn’t Netanyahu put this plan on pause?

In the months since Netanyahu unveiled his plan, protests sprang up in major cities, business leaders balked at the plan and, perhaps most critically, military reservists in Israel’s air force and other key units threatened to stop reporting for duty if it passed.

The protests prompted Netanyahu to pause the overhaul in March and enter talks with opposition lawmakers. But talks broke down last month, and Netanyahu announced in June the overhaul would move forward.

Protesters accuse Netanyahu of changing tactics, but not his broader goals, by moving forward in a slower and more measured way in a bid to dull opposition.

“The government got smarter,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the protest movement. “They saw the fallout of trying to ram the overhaul through, and they decided instead to do it piece by piece.”

What happens next?

A civil society group announced it would challenge the new law in the Supreme Court.

Fuchs said said the court could issue a “temporary writ” preventing the law from taking effect until it can conduct a proper review.

He said the government would likely honor any such order. “But if they won’t, we will have a constitutional crisis right away.”

In the meantime, the protests that have rocked the country will likely grow in intensity.

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