What to know about Israel’s judicial overhaul as final vote nears

Al-Jazeera  /  July 22, 2023

Parliament is set to begin voting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed changes to the judicial system.

Every Saturday, for seven months straight, the streets of Israeli cities have been teeming with protesters carrying the national flag as they staged demonstrations against a controversial judicial overhaul bill by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government.

On July 22, for the 29th consecutive week, hundreds of thousands of Israelis again took to the streets in Tel Aviv, West Jerusalem, Beersheva, Herzliya and Kfar Saba, in a last-ditch show of force against the contentious changes.

The Israeli parliament, or the Knesset, is set to begin voting on the bill on Sunday and Monday.

The protesters say the bill – by which the government plans to limit the Supreme Court’s powers – is a threat to Israel’s democracy.

Al-Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from Tel Aviv, said most of the protesters believe the bill will pass the second and third reading before becoming law.

“They are very disappointed about that and yet they still have some cautious optimism that there might be enough pressure put on the prime minister in the coming couple of days that perhaps he would reverse course,” he said.

“Critics continue to say that if any part of this judicial overhaul package passes, they believe that it will be a severe blow to democracy in Israel.”

Here’s what you need to know before the vote:

What’s in the overhaul ?

The proposals include a bill permitting a simple majority in parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions, while another would give parliament the final say in selecting judges.

On Monday, the parliament will vote on an additional key bill that would prevent the Supreme Court from rejecting government decisions on the basis of “unreasonability”.

The government says the bills are needed to reduce the powers of unelected judges but critics say the changes are a power grab that would push Israel towards autocracy.

Protesters say Netanyahu – who is on trial for corruption charges – and his allies want to appoint cronies to government posts, deepen Israel’s control of the occupied West Bank and implement controversial exemptions for ultraorthodox men.

They also accuse Netanyahu of trying to use the reforms to quash possible judgements against him. The Israeli leader has rejected the accusation.

Why are the changes viewed as alarming ?

Israel’s democratic structures are already weak, given there is no constitution, the government holds a majority in the one-chamber Knesset and the president’s office is largely ceremonial.

The Supreme Court, therefore, is viewed as the body that protects civil rights and the rule of law. The judiciary plays a significant role in checking executive power in the country.

A weakened judiciary, critics say, would see a greater exercise of power by the government, a male-dominated coalition whose members have advocated full annexation of the occupied West Bank as well as policies against LGBTQ people, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and women.

Have the protests been effective ?

Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government launched the overhaul in January, shortly after it was sworn in.

However, alarmed by Israel’s Western allies, the falling shekel and weekly protests that have seen thousands march, forced Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul in late March to allow for mediations with opposition parties.

The talks faltered last month and the Israeli leader relaunched the legislation, scrapping some changes but moving forward with others.

Protesters say Netanyahu is moving forward with the overhaul in a slower and more measured way to lull those opposed.

“The government got smarter,” said Josh Drill, a spokesperson 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’s next ?

Yoav Gallant, the country’s Defence minister, said he has been alarmed by the growing number of people refusing to serve in the military if the overhaul goes through and is looking to push for a delay in Monday’s vote, Israeli media reported.

If the bill passes, an additional 10,000 reservists could announce they may not show up for service, according to reports.

Monday’s “reasonability” bill, if passed, would mark the first major part of the legislation to become law.

However, if the Supreme Court strikes it down, Netanyahu’s coalition would have to decide whether to accept the ruling, with a possible constitutional crisis to occur, analysts say.

Meanwhile, protests will likely continue to grow in intensity as all factions of Israeli society, including army reservists, doctors and CEOs of major Israeli banks, have cautioned against the changes in recent days.