Israel’s Netanyahu delays controversial judiciary overhaul after mass protests

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Protesters shout slogans outside Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem amid ongoing demonstrations and calls for a general strike against the hard-right government’s controversial push to overhaul the justice system, on March 27, 2023. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP) (Photo by HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images)

Hazem Bader | Afp | Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday agreed to suspend a planned judiciary reform until the next parliament session after nationwide protests paralyzed the country.

Netanyahu agreed with one of his hard-right coalition partners, Itamar Ben-Gvir, that the judiciary overhaul bill would be given an extension to the next session to pass the reform through negotiations, NBC reported. This will follow the Passover recess in April.

“I am taking the time out for dialogue,” Netanyahu said Monday evening at a press conference, according to a Sky News translation. He added that the delay came from a desire to reach a broad consensus on the reforms.

As part of the agreement, a National Guard will be set up under Ben-Gvir’s Ministry of National Security.

The latest development indicates Netanyahu has not yet given up on the contentious reform bill, despite huge protests and widespread strikes.

Netanyahu’s administration survived a no-confidence vote early on Monday, following escalating demonstrations and strike action stoked by the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who objected to the planned measures.

The prime minister — who is the longest-serving in Israel’s history — was expected to announce a pause to the legislation on Monday, but the delivery of his statement was postponed three times, according to the Jerusalem Post. Far-right members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition reportedly threatened to leave his government if he paused the legislation, hence the concessions like giving Ben-Gvir’s ministry authority over the National Guard.

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Local news on Monday estimated that 600,000 people took to the streets to protest the proposals, which would significantly weaken the country’s judiciary and encumber attempts to remove Netanyahu from power.

Operations at the Haifa and Ashdod ports and flights out of Israel’s Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv were halted by strike action. Israel’s Leumi Bank also closed branches as part of the demonstrations, while Israeli embassies worldwide have been instructed to join the industrial action, according to a letter seen by Reuters. It is not yet clear whether the strikes will continue.

What were the proposed changes?

In short, the proposed judiciary overhaul would severely limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to review and strike down laws that it deems unconstitutional. The Knesset — Israel’s Parliament — voted in late February to advance a major part of the reforms.

They essentially have four main clauses:

  • Allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 out of 120 seats while, currently, the court can block any law it deems unconstitutional.
  • Removing the Supreme Court’s ability to judge Knesset legislation and other government decisions for “reasonability”; this principle was exercised in the court’s recent decision to rule one of Netanyahu’s ministerial appointments as “highly unreasonable” because of past criminal convictions.
  • Giving the most control over appointing judges to the ruling coalition, rather than to a current set committee of legal experts and representatives.
  • Allowing ministers to appoint their own legal advisors, and taking away the authority of the latter to make binding decisions.

Netanyahu and his justice minister, Yariv Levin, said that the changes were needed to prevent the Supreme Court — which is unelected — from overly intervening in the cabinet and Knesset decision-making.

“The claim that this reform is the end of democracy is baseless,” Netanyahu said in response to the torrent of criticism. The prime minister himself is currently under investigation on numerous counts of corruption and other charges, meaning he would likely benefit from a weaker judiciary.

He said that “the balance between the branches in the governmental system has been violated over the last two decades, and even more so in recent years,” and that the reforms would “restore the correct balance between the branches.”

But huge swathes of Israeli civil society, along with current and former lawmakers, strongly disagree, as evidenced over roughly four months of protests.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

ABIR SULTAN | AFP | Getty Images

Israeli lawmakers, business leaders, and military officials as well as civil society members have vocally warned against the reforms. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the situation “madness” and “a loss of control and a loss of direction.”

Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, wrote in a report in late February that Netanyahu and his allies’ “proposal would all but abolish the role of the Supreme Court as the sole check on executive and legislative power in Israel.”

“In Netanyahu’s new Israel, the slimmest of majorities could decide anything,” Sachs wrote. “Pure, unbridled majoritarianism.”


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