AP / February 20, 2023
TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel’s government on Monday was 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 gathering outside the parliament, or Knesset, 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.
The standoff has plunged Israel into one of its greatest domestic crises, sharpening a divide between Israelis over the character of their state and the values they believe should guide it.
Monday’s vote on part of the legislation is just 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 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.
On Monday, thousands were rallying outside the Knesset, waving Israeli flags and holding signs reading “saving democracy!”
Earlier in the day, protesters launched a sit-down demonstration at the entrance of the homes of some coalition lawmakers and briefly halted traffic on Tel Aviv’s main highway. Hundreds waved Israeli flags in Tel Aviv and also in the northern city of Haifa, holding signs reading “resistance is mandatory.”
“We’re here to demonstrate for the democracy. Without democracy there’s no state of Israel. And we’re going to fight till the end,” said Marcos Fainstein, a protester in Tel Aviv.
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 U.S., Israel’s chief international ally.
U.S. 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 democratic institutions.
His comments drew angry responses from Netanyahu 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. “Israel was and will remain a strong and vibrant democracy,” he said.
While Israel has long boasted of its democratic credentials, critics say that claim is tainted by the country’s West Bank occupation and the treatment of its own Palestinian minority.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens — a minority that may have the most to lose by the legal overhaul — have largely sat out the protests, in part because of discrimination they suffer at home and because of Israel’s 55-year military occupation over their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank. 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 that 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.”
A second change would bar the Supreme Court from overturning what are 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.
Associated Press reporter Ami Bentov in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report