What are Israeli PM Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms & why they’ve sparked mass protests

What are Israeli PM Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms & why they’ve sparked mass protests

On Tuesday, the PM delayed the judicial overhaul to 'allow dialogue' & avoid 'civil war'. Critics say proposed laws could give Israeli parliament more control over the courts.

Israeli protesters chant in front of a burning fire at a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv | Reuters

Israeli protesters chant in front of a burning fire at a demonstration against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his nationalist coalition government's plan for judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv | Reuters

New Delhi: On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paused two controversial laws that critics say could weaken the country’s judicial system — a development that came on the back of mass protests against his government’s proposed judicial reforms. 

In a statement, Netanyahu said he took the decision which came amid growing pressure from within his own coalition to “allow dialogue” and avoid a “civil war”.

The development came two days after the dismissal of the country’s defence minister, Yoav Galant, after his public opposition to the legislation. Critics say the reforms, announced in January, could weaken the judiciary’s powers, especially in light of an ongoing trial against Netanyahu, who is facing charges of bribery, corruption, and breach of trust.

The legislation has also been called into question by some of Israel’s closest allies, notably the United States and the United Kingdom. 

Galant’s dismissal Sunday led to an escalation of three-month-long protests and drew outrage from Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who said the government had stooped to a “new low”. Galant himself called the proposed legislation an “immediate and tangible danger” to national security, the BBC reported.

Here’s what the controversial judicial reforms are all about:  

Also Read: Benjamin Netanyahu has won elections, but Israel has lost the battle for its own soul 

What are the proposed laws & why protests are happening

At the centre of the protests are two controversial Bills that critics claim will give the Knesset, the Israeli parliament — and by extension, the ruling parties in Israel — more control over the country’s court system.  

Israel has no written constitution — instead, it has a set of 13 quasi-constitutional laws, called the Basic Laws of Israel, some of which can only be changed by the Knesset.  

The first Bill is an override provision — that is, it would allow the Israeli parliament to enact laws that have been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The second gives politicians the power to choose a majority of judges in the Supreme Court, which critics say could lead to biased rulings.  

On 20 February, the Bills passed the first of three readings that would help turn them into laws.

Many view the legislation as a part of the right-wing coalition government’s alleged efforts to rein in the role of the judiciary and help Netanyahu shrug off the corruption charges. 

The PM has so far denied these claims, arguing that his government received a mandate from voters to pass the reform when it was elected last November.

However, The Guardian reported that the reforms are spearheaded, not by Netanyahu, but by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Religious Zionist MP Simcha Rothman (who chairs the Knesset’s law and justice committee). The two men have been long-standing critics of the Supreme Court, the report said, because they believe it is unfairly prejudiced against the ‘settler movement’, the ultra-religious population of Israel, and the Mizrahi population of Jews from the Middle East.

Furthermore, the passing of the Bills will also lead to the Supreme Court deciding on laws that curb its own power, further raising the possibility of a constitutional standoff. 

The ‘Israeli Spring’ 

The announcement of the legislative changes earlier this year sparked what’s being dubbed as the ‘Israeli Spring’ — the largest protests the country has seen so far. 

The protests began in January and have been going on since, seeing the participation of several high-tech businessmen, bankers, and even establishment figures such as ex-army and intelligence personnel.

On 1 March, as airports and highways were shut down, protesters clashed with the police during a nationwide ‘day of disruption’. 

On 15 March, President Isaac Herzog proposed a compromise plan to replace the government’s reforms, but the Netanyahu government rejected them as unfeasible.

Last Thursday, the Knesset passed a law that prevents the attorney general from declaring him unfit for office. 

The law also makes it harder to remove a serving prime minister from office, requiring either the prime minister or two-thirds of the cabinet to vote for such a declaration, and limiting the grounds for removal to physical or mental incompetence.

This legislation has sparked allegations that Netanyahu defied a 2020 court-ordered conflict of interest agreement that had allowed him to continue leading the country while facing corruption charges. 

On 26 March, Israel’s High Court gave Netanyahu a week to respond to a petition calling for him to be held in contempt of court. The petition was filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel.

On Sunday, defence minister Galant publicly urged the Israeli government to pause the judicial reforms, leading to his sacking. 

What lies ahead

The proposed reforms would be the most dramatic changes to Israel’s judicial system since the country’s creation in 1948. 

Netanyahu and his followers claim the Supreme Court has become an exclusive club that no longer speaks for the Israeli public and accuse it of overstepping its authority. 

On the other hand, critics argue that if the government has a greater say in judicial appointments, Netanyahu’s allies will appoint judges they know will rule in his favour. 

According to a poll released last month by the Israel Democracy Institute, only a minority of Israelis support the reforms. The vast majority — 72 per cent — want a compromise to be reached, 66 per cent think the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws, and 63 per cent of Israelis think the current method of appointing judges should stay as it is.

Several former Mossad chiefs have also spoken out against the reforms, warning division over the issue is harming Israeli security. 

In mid-March, the coalition government softened its stand for the first time, announcing that it had amended the law that would reform the committee that selects judges. Instead of having the vast majority of the appointed seats on the committee, the government-appointed members would have a one-seat majority.

Critics argue that the legislative changes could have a particular impact on the rights of minorities in Israel, especially on the Palestinians living in Israel. Last year, the court had halted the evictions of Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. 

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

Also Read: India-Israel ties deeper than Modi and Netanyahu’s personal relationship, says Israeli diplomat