Israel’s parliament votes through Netanyahu’s controversial Supreme Court changes – despite mass protests

Bel Trew

The Independent  /  July 25, 2023

Bill passes 64-0 after opposition politicians leave chamber crying ‘For shame!’ – with the streets around the building packed with protesters.

Israel’s parliament has voted to curb the powers of the Supreme Court, a key part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive judicial overhaul, despite massive nationwide protests that have exposed deep rifts within the country.

In a stormy session on Monday, legislators met to vote on a bill which would strip the country’s top judges of the right to strike down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable”. Beforehand, opposition legislators who had labelled the move a “disaster” shouted “For shame!” and stormed out of the building in protest.

Crowds of angry protesters outside blocked access to the Knesset, accusing the government of “declaring war” on the country, while union chiefs threatened potential strikes. Despite this, the measure was passed by a 64-0 margin.

By the evening, thousands of campaigners had taken to streets across the country, blocking highways and scuffling with police who said at least 19 people had been arrested.

Justice minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the plan, said parliament had started “an important historic process” of overhauling the judiciary. Supporters claim the reforms will rebalance the branches of government by stopping unelected judges from having “excessive powers” over decision-making by elected officials.

 “We took the first step in the historic, important process of fixing the justice system and restoring powers that were taken from the government and the Knesset [parliament],” Levin said in his speech.

However, the reforms have not only sparked mass protest but caused splits in Israel’s powerful military and repeatedly drawn concern from its closest ally, the United States and other parts of the international community.

Netanyahu attended the session but has yet to publicly comment – he was briefly hospitalized before the vote to have a pacemaker implanted adding another layer of drama to the day.

The bill has laid bare the deep and bitter fault-lines in Israeli society and exposed the determination of Netanyahu and his far-right religious nationalist allies to ram through their vision for the country.

Netanyahu and his coalition argue that the Supreme Court has become an elitist group that does not represent the Israeli people and has overstepped its role by committing “judicial activism”.

Monday’s bill is just the first step in a wider planned shake-up – one that left-wing Israeli media outlets have labelled “a judicial coup” – which has yet to fully make its way to the Knesset floor.

Other scheduled bills include removing independent legal advisers to the ministries, who serve as watchdogs. It followed another piece of legislation pushed through in March which makes it harder for sitting prime ministers to be declared unfit for office.

Critics say it is part of Netanyahu’s efforts to consolidate power by weakening the independence and oversight of judges, as well as to avoid jail time as he stands trial on graft charges: a conviction could end up being appealed in the Supreme Court. Netanayhu denies all the charges.

Those opposed to the reforms also believe Netanyahu wants to change the law to appoint his supporters to government posts and fire detractors including, possibly, the independent attorney general.

Some also believe Netanyahu is pandering to his coalition of ultra-orthodox and extremist religious settlers who aim to defang the Supreme Court, as it is the primary brake on government policies.

Israel has no formal constitution and little local governance; under its system, 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.

The vote came after 28 consecutive weekends of extraordinary nationwide protests involving business leaders, legal officials, former Netanyahu loyalists, ex-army chiefs of staff, and military reservists, prompting fears that the country’s security could be compromised.

As many as 10,000 reservists have reportedly declared they’re treading a “path to dictatorship”, according to reservist-led protest groups.

Over the weekend 100 senior retired security officials – including three former Israeli army chiefs of staff, five former Mossad directors and three former heads of the country’s internal intelligence agency – wrote to Netanyahu urging him not to go ahead with the bill. They said it “violates the social contract” that soldiers risk their lives on the understanding they are defending a democracy.

Alarmed, the current head of the military, Lt General Herzi Halevi, wrote a letter to soldiers a day before the vote, warning of the “dangerous cracks” that threatened the country if there is no “strong and cohesive military”.

Organizers of the main rallies, meanwhile, claimed this weekend had seen the largest gatherings yet with a record 550,000 people taking to the streets.

Among the crowds were thousands of people who completed a four-day march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and pitched a tent city in a central Jerusalem park.

Those rallies continued on Monday, with groups trying to break the barriers at the parliament building and clashes with police.

The head of Israel’s main public sector union Histadrut, who had been trying to mediate a compromise between the government and opposition, said after the vote he would meet with other union chiefs to discuss the possibility of a general strike.

Meanwhile, an Israeli political watchdog group said on Monday it would file a Supreme Court appeal against the newly amended law.

Two of Israel’s biggest banks, Leumi and Hapoalim, said they would allow workers to demonstrate on Monday without losing pay.

A forum of some 150 of Israel’s largest companies went on strike and Azrieli and Big, two of Israel’s largest malls, said stores in their shopping centres would remain closed.

There were reports of strikes by medical unions.

The legislation has also drawn the ire and alarm of the international community.

In an extraordinary statement to the news site Axios late Sunday, US president Joe Biden warned against pushing ahead with the legal changes.

 “Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this – the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” he told the site.

The United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk had already urged the Israeli government to pause, saying the proposed changes together would pose a serious risk to the effectiveness of the judiciary in defending the rule of law.

Bel Trew is International Correspondent for The Independent based in Beirut