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Protests in Israel against judicial reform are not slowing down: what you need to know

Saturday, March 11, saw another day of well-attended demonstrations in Israel against the reform of the judicial system proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

As reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which cites sources inside the organization of the protests, those on Saturday might have been the most attended until now. An estimated 500,000 people in several Israeli cities took to the streets to protest for the tenth consecutive week. In Tel Aviv, there were reportedly at least 200,000 protesters. Most of them were carrying Israeli banners and flags.

Protesters in Tel Aviv on Saturday (Amir Levy/Getty Images)

The exceptionality of these protests concerns the fact that they involve many segments of society, even very distant from each other. On Thursday, March 9, for example, workers from high-tech companies demonstrated, while economists, doctors, and the military protested in the previous days. The joining of the protest by the military, as well as some unaccountable employees of Israel's secret service, the Mossad, who generally stay away from political disputes, is considered unprecedented.

The main reason behind the protests by the demonstrators concerns the reform of the judicial system proposed by the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The proposal was presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, of Netanyahu's Likud party, and is supported by all the parties that make up the government.

The reform involves a change in the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court, whose decisions could be overturned by a simple majority vote in the local unicameral parliament, the Knesset. Therefore, 61 votes among the 120 members of the Knesset would be enough to overturn the decisions of the Court. Netanyahu's government is supported by 64 Knesset members from 6 different parties: 32 from Likud, 11 from Shas, 7 from Religious Zionist, 7 from United Torah Judaism, 6 from Otzma Yehud, and one from Noam.

The second proposal concerns the amendment of the composition of the independent commission for the appointment of Israeli judges - the Judicial Selection Committee. The committee appoints both the judges of the Supreme Court and those of the minor courts. The commission is currently made up of 9 members, 4 of whom are political appointees, chosen by the government. The change would lead to an increase in the number of commission members to 11, 8 of whom would be politically appointed, thus potentially undermining the independence of the Supreme Court in exercising the judicial powers.

Israel does not have a constitution. It does, however, have a set of so-called Basic Laws which enshrine individual rights and the relationship between citizen and state. The Supreme Court has so far exercised its right to abolish any law passed by the Knesset, through a test of "reasonableness". In essence, the Supreme Court has the power to abolish any law that is "unreasonable" and therefore conflicts with the principles of the Basic Laws.

According to supporters of the reform, this mechanism should be profoundly changed. For the opponents, there is a risk of undermining the Israeli democratic system.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP)

Israel's President Isaac Herzog said the reform causes "serious concerns about the negative impacts on the democratic foundations of the state of Israel" and asked political forces to pause in parliamentary work to allow for a broader discussion within the society on how to reform justice in the country. However, the government's political forces ignored Herzog’s recommendations, and the legislative process is continuing.

According to a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute polling firm, 66% of Israelis oppose the reform proposed by Minister Levin and would like the Supreme Court to have the power to overturn Knesset decisions that are incompatible with the Basic Laws. 63% of the interviewees believe that the current composition of the Judicial Selection Committee should not be changed. The most significant data concern voters who declare themselves supporters of parties in government: 47% of Likud voters and 42% of Shas voters do not support the proposed reform of the judicial system.

That at the moment the Israeli Supreme Court has probably excessive powers and that it has a very interventionist role in the political life of the country is a consideration shared not only by the nationalist right and by the ultra-Orthodox in government, but also by the left and center forces that constitute the opposition. Most of the political parties in Israel believe that there is currently an imbalance of power that favors the judicial system.

However, according to critics, the solution proposed by the government would end up creating a new imbalance, potentially more dangerous: from a system in which the Supreme Court has too many powers, Israel would move on to a system in which the majority in government is decisively dominant, and above all, it would no longer have any limits and counterweights.

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