Israel's Netanyahu advances judicial changes despite uproar

Israel's Netanyahu advances judicial changes despite uproar
4 min read
20 February, 2023
The overhaul has prompted otherwise stoic former security chiefs to speak out, and even warn of civil war.
Protesters march with a cutout placard showing Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir with a gasoline jerrycan over his head during the demonstration against Netanyahu's right-wing government. [Getty]

Israel's government on Monday is pressing ahead with a contentious plan to overhaul the country's legal system, despite an unprecedented uproar that has included mass protests, warnings from military and business leaders and calls for restraint by the United States.

Thousands of demonstrators were expected to gather outside the parliament for a second straight week to rally against the plan as lawmakers prepared to hold an initial vote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, a collection of ultra-religious and ultranationalist lawmakers, say the plan is meant to fix a system that has given the courts and government legal advisers too much say in how legislation is crafted and decisions are made. Critics say it will upend the country's system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister. They also say that Netanyahu, who is on trial for a series of corruption charges, has a conflict of interest.

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Monday's vote on the part of the legislation is the first of three readings required for parliamentary approval. While that process is expected to take months, the vote is a sign of the coalition's determination to barrel ahead and is seen by many as an act of bad faith.

Israel's figurehead president has urged the government to freeze the legislation and seek a compromise with the opposition. Leaders in the booming tech sector have warned that weakening the judiciary could drive away investors. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been protesting in Tel Aviv and other cities each week.

Last week, some 100,000 people demonstrated outside the Knesset as a committee granted initial approval to the plan. It was the largest protest in the city in years.

The overhaul has prompted otherwise stoic former security chiefs to speak out, and even warn of civil war. In a sign of the rising emotions, a group of army veterans in their 60s and 70s stole a decommissioned tank from a war memorial site and draped it with Israel's declaration of independence before being stopped by police.

The plan has even sparked rare warnings from the US, Israel's chief ally.

US Ambassador Tom Nides told a podcast over the weekend that Israel should "pump the brakes" on the legislation and seek a consensus on reform that would protect Israel's institutions.

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His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu's allies, telling Nides to stay out of Israel's internal affairs.

Speaking to his Cabinet on Sunday, Netanyahu dismissed suggestions that Israel's 'democracy' was under threat. 

While Israel has long claimed its democratic credentials, many have pointed out that the country could not be a democracy considering its occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza and its apartheid policies towards the Palestinians. 

Israel's Palestinian citizens — who have the most to lose by the legal overhaul — have largely sat out the protests, partly because of discrimination they suffer at home and because of Israel's 55-year military occupation over their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Jewish settlers in the West Bank can vote in Israeli elections and are generally protected by Israeli laws, while Palestinians in the same territory are subject to military rule and cannot vote.

Monday's parliamentary votes seek to grant the government more power over who becomes a judge. Today, a selection committee is made up of politicians, judges and lawyers — a system that proponents say promotes consensus.

The new system would give coalition lawmakers control over the appointments. Critics fear judges will be appointed based on their loyalty to the government or prime minister.

"This is dramatic," said Yaniv Roznai, co-director of the Rubinstein Center for Constitutional Challenges at Reichman University north of Tel Aviv. "If you take control of the court, then it's all over. You can make any change you want."

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A second change would bar the Supreme Court from overturning what is known as "basic laws," pieces of legislation that stand in for a constitution, which Israel does not have. Critics say that legislators will be able to dub any law a basic law, removing judicial oversight over controversial legislation.

Also planned are proposals that would give parliament the power to overturn Supreme Court rulings and control the appointment of government legal advisers. The advisers currently are professional civil servants, and critics say the new system would politicize government ministries.

Critics also fear the overhaul will grant Netanyahu an escape route from his legal woes. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of a biased judicial system on a witch hunt against him.

Israel's attorney general has barred Netanyahu from any involvement in the overhaul, saying his legal troubles create a conflict of interest. Instead, his justice minister, a close confidant, is leading the charge. On Sunday, Netanyahu called the restrictions on him "patently ridiculous."

Recent polls show that most Israelis, including many Netanyahu supporters, support halting the legislation and moving forward through consensus.