Israel judicial crisis: What are the reforms causing outrage?

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has prioritized judicial reform since taking office earlier this year.

Right-wing activists in Israel have long complained about the judiciary’s ability to override bills passed by the Knesset, claiming that it has a left-wing bias and is too willing to support the rights of minorities over the majority.

In contrast, liberals and leftists in Israel often see the judiciary as a last resort against authoritarian and theocratic change in the country’s politics.

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

Middle East Eye looks at why this is happening and how the proposals to reform the judiciary have pushed Israel forward:

Why is this legislation being proposed?

The judgment of Israel, and the Supreme Court in particular, has long been a bête noire of the Israeli right wingers.

Time and again, the courts have struck down laws and decisions proposed by right-wing legislators, claiming they are unconstitutional.

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Recent examples include a decision by Israel’s Central Election Committee to ban the Palestinian political party Balad, a ban on a left-wing American activist, a bill to legalize previously illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and ruling in favor of the West Bank. 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 believe that curtailing the power of the court is critical to advancing their political agenda.

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

Those concerns appear to be supported by the passage of a measure on Thursday that would prevent the Supreme Court from considering applications to declare him unfit for office.

What is in the proposed legislation?

The government is currently proposing a range of measures, some of which have changed since they were first put forward.

At the heart of the legislation are proposals which aim to eliminate or limit the ability of the Supreme Court to overrule decisions made by parliament.

Perhaps the most controversial measure is allowing a majority in the Knesset – 61 lawmakers out of 120 – the power to restore laws struck down 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, giving whoever was in government enormous power.

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

Currently, there are nine members on the Judicial Selection Committee, and a simple majority of the committee members present is required to appoint a judge to the courts – other than the Supreme Court, provided that no fewer than seven members take part in the vote.

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

The current nine members include the president of the supreme court, two other supreme court judges selected by the Supreme Court judges, 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 unelected officials too much power.

As a result, the government initially 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 majority vote for members for of the government.

However, following pressure from the United States, changes were made to the bill which now envisages that the panel will consist of three cabinet ministers, three coalition legislators, three judges, and two opposition legislators, giving a majority vote of 6 -5 instead.

Netanyahu initially looked set to ratify the reform package by the time parliament adjourned on April 2. But after pressure from the US they will now be shelved until parliament meets on April 30, with the exception of the judicial panel legislation.

Why are people angry?

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

A large part of this self-understanding comes from having independent judgment. This was seen, at least for Israeli citizens, as protecting the country’s civil liberties and ensuring the separation of powers.

The proposed bills challenged this, and as a result, incited fear across the country.

Although most of the opposition came from left-of-centre parties and activists, the plans have been fiercely criticized by many former establishment and right-wing politicians and officials as well.

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Some former senior intelligence officials have warned that the country is sliding towards “dictatorship”, citing the judicial reforms as a major step on 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 a “dictatorship”, and 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 taking to the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and other cities against the changes. Many claim that the reform of the judiciary is a “coup”.

Senior political figures also participated in the protests. Opposition leader Yair Lapid addressed protesters in the city of Ashdod last week, warning that the government wanted to “run ahead with the legislation and turn Israel into a democratic state”.

What is the international reaction?

Many of Israel’s traditional allies have criticized the proposed legislation and have called for a compromise or a complete scrapping of the proposals.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Netanyahu that the legislation risked Israel “disassociating” itself from democracy, while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was of “great concern” and a “high democratic interest”. were the judges.

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

In contrast, however, the United Kingdom has signed a new trade and security agreement with Israel and is welcoming Netanyahu to London this week.

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