Israel judicial crisis: What are the reforms causing outrage ?

Alex MacDonald

Middle East Eye  /  March 23, 2023

Israel has been rocked by 11 weeks of protests over government plans to overhaul the judiciary, which critics say will push the country towards ‘dictatorship’.

Israel is currently undergoing one of the biggest domestic crises in its 75-year history as a result of new legislation being pushed through its parliament aimed at limiting the power of the country’s judiciary.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a judicial overhaul a priority since it came into office earlier this year.

Right-wingers in Israel have long complained about the ability of the judiciary to overrule bills passed by the Knesset, claiming it has a left-wing bias and is too willing to back the rights of minorities over the majority.

Liberals and leftists in Israel have, by contrast, often seen the judiciary as the last bulwark against an increasingly authoritarian and theocratic shift in the country’s politics.

The proposed changes have sparked weeks of protests inside and outside Israel, with former officials claiming the country is slipping into “dictatorship”.

Middle East Eye takes a look at why this is happening and how the proposals to reform the judiciary have pushed Israel to the brink:

Why is this legislation being proposed ?

The Israeli judiciary, and the Supreme Court in particular, have long been a bête noire of Israeli right-wingers.

Repeatedly, the courts have struck down laws and decisions that have been proposed by right-wing lawmakers, claiming they are unconstitutional.

Recent examples include overturning a decision by Israel’s Central Elections Committee to ban the Palestinian political party Balad, nullifying a ban on a left-wing American activist, striking down a bill legalizing erstwhile illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, and ruling in favour of the continued imprisonment of an alleged child sex offender after the government was accused of obstructing her case.

As such, many on the right wing of Israeli politics have seen cutting down the court’s power as crucial to advancing their political agenda.

In addition, Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption, and although he denies having any ulterior motive for the legislation, many critics see it as a way for him to prevent his imprisonment.

The passage on Thursday of a measure that would prevent the Supreme Court from considering requests to declare him unfit for office would appear to support these concerns.

What is the legislation being proposed ?

There is a range of measures currently being proposed by the government, a number of which have changed since they were originally put forward.

At the core of the legislation are proposals aimed at ending or limiting the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule decisions made by the parliament.

Perhaps the most contentious measure is to allow a majority in the Knesset – 61 lawmakers out of 120 – the power to reinstate laws annulled by the Supreme Court.

This has alarmed critics, who say that even legislation found to violate Israel’s Basic Laws – the closest thing the country has to a constitution – could still be passed, which would give enormous power to whoever was in government.

Another controversial element of the legislation is a proposed change to the makeup of the panel that selects judges for Israeli courts.

At present, the Judicial Selection Committee is comprised of nine members, and the appointment of a judge to the courts – apart from the Supreme Court – requires a simple majority of the committee members present, providing no less than seven members participate in the vote.

While an appointment to the Supreme Court requires the support of seven out of the nine committee members.

The nine members at present include the supreme court president, two other supreme court justices selected by the justices of the Supreme Court, the justice minister, another cabinet minister; two members of the Knesset chosen by the Knesset, and two members of the Israel Bar Association.

In the eyes of the government, this balance gives too much power to unelected officials.

As a result, the government originally proposed changes so that the panel would include three cabinet ministers, two coalition lawmakers, and two public figures chosen by the government, meaning a 7-4 vote majority for pro-government members.

However, following pressure from the US, changes were made to the bill that now envisages the panel being made up of three cabinet ministers, three coalition lawmakers, three judges, and two opposition lawmakers, giving it a 6-5 vote majority instead.

Netanyahu had originally looked set to ratify the package of reforms by the time parliament went on recess on 2 April. But following US pressure they will now be shelved until the parliament reconvenes on 30 April, with the exception of the judicial panel legislation.

Why are people angry ?

Israel regularly likes to boast that it is the only democracy in the Middle East.

A big part of this self-perception comes from having an independent judiciary. This has, for Israeli citizens at least, been seen as something that protects the country’s civil liberties and ensures the separation of powers.

The proposed bills have challenged this, and as a result, provoked alarm across the country.

While the main bulk of opposition has stemmed from left-of-centre parties and activists, many former establishment and right-wing politicians and officials have also fiercely criticized the plans.

A number of senior former intelligence officials have warned that the country is sliding towards “dictatorship”, citing the judicial reforms as a major step along that path.

“It’s a regime change, legally turning Israel into a dictatorship. That’s what this is,” said Nadav Argaman, former director of the Shin Bet security service, speaking to Israeli media last week.

Earlier in March, former Mossad chief Danny Yatom also warned that the country was facing “dictatorship”, while Haaretz interviewed a former elite army operative who expressed similar concerns.

So far there have been 11 straight weeks of protests against the legislation, with thousands of people swamping the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and other cities in opposition to the changes. Many claim the overhaul of the judiciary represents a “coup”.

Senior political figures have also joined in with the protests. The leader of the opposition Yair Lapid addressed protesters in the city of Ashdod last week, warning that the government wanted to “run forward with the legislation and turn Israel into an undemocratic state”.

What is the international reaction ?

Many of Israel’s traditional allies have criticized the proposed legislation and called either for compromise or for the proposals to be done away with entirely.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Netanyahu that Israel risked “disconnecting” itself from democracy with the legislation, while Germany Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he had “great concern” and that the judiciary was a “high democratic good”.

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden told Netanyahu – who has, unlike in the past, not yet been invited to the White House since his re-election – that democratic values were a hallmark of US-Israeli ties and he supported finding a compromise over the legislation.

By contrast, however, the UK has passed a new trade and security agreement with Israel and is welcoming Netanyahu to London this week.

Alex MacDonald is a reporter at Middle East Eye