Israel: Judicial overhaul draws more protests

Israeli anti-government protesters have called for another "day of disruption" as the government goes ahead with justice reform plans

 The new legislation could be adopted before the parliamentary summer break (Photo: DW)
The new legislation could be adopted before the parliamentary summer break (Photo: DW)


For 28 weeks, many Israelis have been taking to the streets in protest at the government's planned overhaul of the country's justice system.

Now, another crucial moment has arrived, says Noa Gur-Arieh. The young family physician was among thousands who demonstrated at Ben Gurion Airport last Tuesday, chanting "democratia" and waving Israeli flags on another "day of disruption."

He was referring to the passing in a first vote last week of a draft bill that advances the government's judicial overhaul plan.

"This is pretty much our last chance. There will be no boundaries to what a government can or cannot do," Gur-Arieh told DW. The bill would, among other things, abolish the Supreme Court's ability to apply the legal standard of reasonableness, which has been a tool that ensures judicial oversight of government decisions that the court deems unreasonable or implausible.

While the legislation needs to pass two more readings before it becomes law, the final votes are expected to be scheduled before the parliament breaks up for the summer recess at the end of July.

That is why protesters have vowed to step up their actions. This Tuesday, another nationwide "day of disruption" will see more protests in the days leading up to the final votes, which are expected in the Knesset plenum next week.

So far, protests have been held outside ministers' homes and blocked highways and junctions, in addition to large rallies held in cities throughout the country.

With their trust in the government almost at nil, protesters say they highly doubt that it will listen to their concerns.

"In general, making significant changes in law is something that is reasonable to do, but it must be done with a wide agreement. If the whole country is out on the streets, something is wrong," said protester Gur-Arieh, who hasn't been deterred by a tough police response to the recent protest. Israel’s far-right minister for national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, was among coalition members to call for more arrests and indictments of protesters.

Deepening divide

Six months into the protests, the divide has deepened between opponents and supporters of the controversial judicial overhaul, and tempers are rising on all sides.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who was hospitalized on Saturday after he fainted at home — and his hawkish allies say that the unelected courts wield too much power and that Supreme Court judges have overstepped their authority in the past.

In March, after weeks of protests, refusals by military reservists to report for duty and a large-scale strike by Israel’s biggest labor union, Netanyahu postponed decisions on the legislation until the current legislature was in place.

In the meantime, talks mediated by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog between the ruling coalition and the opposition haven't yielded any compromise.

These days, the coalition government pushes one law at a time through the Knesset instead of introducing packages of legislation. Observers say that this might be a tactic of Netanyahu's both to appease hard-line allies within his own Likud party and his far-right and ultraorthodox coalition partners, and to make it harder for the protest movement to mobilize the masses.

Netanyahu has said that another controversial bill, the so-called override clause, won't be enshrined as legislation. The clause is a mechanism that would allow the Knesset to still enact legislation that has been ruled as in principle "unconstitutional" by the Supreme Court (Israel has no formal constitution as such but rather a set of Basic Laws as a defacto constitution). Butit remains unclear whether his coalition intends to pass other bills that have been prepared for final votes before the Knesset breaks up for the summer.

But this gradual approach hasn't done anything to placate opponents of the judicial overhaul.

For example, some leaders of Israel’s high-tech firms have again threatened to move their funds abroad, just as they did a few months ago. And Israel’s central bank governor, Amir Yaron, warned in a recent speech that the "continued uncertainty has significant economic costs."

"The decision-makers must restore certainty about the economy in Israel," he added.

And to add to it all, media reports suggest that hundreds of reservists and volunteer air force pilots in the Israeli military have once more signaled that they might not show up for training or for reserve duty if the judicial overhaul goes through.

Refusal of military reservists a game changer

The refusal of volunteer air force pilots to show up for duty is seen as a considerable potential risk to Israel's security.

"The tsunami is heading towards us. The way the people who intend to stop serving see it, the contract between them and the state has been broken: They swore to serve a Jewish and democratic state and to risk their lives for it, and from the moment that democracy is in danger, they are no longer bound to serve," writes commentator Yoav Limor in the conservative Israel Hayom daily newspaper.

The potential risk comes at a particularly tense time on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where tensions between Hezbollah and the Israeli army have been rising in recent weeks over a territorial dispute. In the Israeli-occupied West Bank as well, after a deadly incursion into the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin to destroy weapons and militant infrastructure ended two weeks ago, the Israeli army has been continuing its raids into Palestinian towns and villages. Palestinian militant groups have also claimed several attacks against Israelis in the area.

Meanwhile, a policy of settlement expansion and a surge in settler violence against Palestinians, condoned by several far right, pro-settler Cabinet members, continue to establish facts on the ground in the occupied West Bank.

The judicial overhaul plans and the overall polarization around them have triggered some unusually sharp remarks from Israel’s closest ally, the United States. In a recent interview with broadcaster CNN, US President Joe Biden described Netanyahu's coalition government as having some of "the most extreme members of cabinets that I’ve seen."

This was Biden’s response to a question about why the Israeli prime minister has not yet been invited to the White House since Netanyahu took office in December 2022. Israel's President Herzog, will meet Biden at the White House on Tuesday, however, and is to address the US Congress on Wednesday.

While the government opposition does not possess the numbers that would be needed to vote down any draft legislations, anti-government protesters have vowed to continue. “We are fighting for Israeli democracy, for the independence of our judicial system”, Dana Yelin, a doctor for infectious diseases at one of Israel’s main hospitals, tells DW. "We only have one check over our government, that is the Supreme Court, and they are trying to take it away. We won’t allow it."

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