Despite protests and concerns about eroding democratic principles, PM Netanyahu persists in pushing the reforms, drawing international attention and discussions with foreign leaders. As Israel nears its 75th anniversary, the nation faces potential consequences of altering governmental power balance
Israel is in the midst of one of the worst domestic turmoil ever in its history. The country’s current crisis revolves around the set of judicial reforms Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to carry out. Sadly, he is determined to do it despite receiving a multitude of dissenting voices from his own people.
But why is he trying to torpedo the backbone of the judiciary?
Since the beginning of the year, Israel has encountered protests for various issues. The majority of the people are against the reforms suggested by the Government.
This coming Monday, the MPs in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, will vote on the historic “Reasonableness Bill,” which will remove the Supreme Court’s power to cancel the Government’s decisions it deems unreasonable. This doctrine, at its core, allows the country’s courts to strike down Government and administrative decisions seen as not covering all the relevant aspects of the issue, even if they do not violate any existing law.
Today, the right-wing political parties and conservatives in the country fulminate against the special tool possessed by the judiciary. To them, the Supreme Court has been employing this tool to intervene in the decisions made by the popularly elected members of Parliament. Now the question is about the power rivalry between the elected representatives and the unelected judges. They also argue that the application of the Reasonableness Doctrine to review the appointment of ministers and senior civil servants directly trespasses onto the center of executive decision-making.
The opponents of the Government’s judicial reform say that this doctrine is crucial in protecting the rights of the people, which are not overtly stated in the existing Israeli law. When it comes to the appointment of government servants, the court has the power to overturn the appointment of unfit officials by invoking the Doctrine of Reasonableness. It is a unique weapon in the hands of the judiciary to check corruption and misgovernance.
Therefore, they argue that once the Netanyahu Government enacts the new law, the Supreme Court’s power to defend these rights will soon come to an end. And in the long run, Netanyahu’s idea of strangling the country’s democratic ethos and norms will become a reality for all.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu addressed the nation this week and discussed the Jewish democratic state on the eve of Tisha B’Av. He strongly warned people of the threats of a military coup arising from the refusal to serve and the potential danger to the country’s democracy by those who simply do not want to respect the verdict of the people. He also assured the people that his Government is working towards a consensus on the proposed judicial reforms that have sparked countrywide protests. He criticised the reservists who refused to serve the Government if the Bill is passed. To him, the reservists’ refusal to report for duty is a major security threat to the nation. He has so far stood by the reform agenda despite the tensions it has caused all around the country. The opposition leader, Benny Gantz, called on President Isaac Herzog to initiate compromise talks as the Knesset Law Committee has already passed the proposed bill for voting.
He made it clear in his maiden speech: “This evening, I would like to calm everyone: in every situation, Israel will continue to be a democratic state. It will continue to be a liberal state. It will not become a state governed by Jewish religious law, and it will safeguard everyone’s individual rights. But when I say everyone, these rights must genuinely be equal for everyone. None are more equal, and none are less equal. Some people can’t be subject to the law while others are above it and can block roads, set fires, block the railways, block ambulances, and put lives at risk.”
It shows his intentions are very clear. He is all set to bring judicial reforms, and his agenda will not change even if millions march on the roads.
Many say that Netanyahu’s original plan was different. When he returned to office at the end of 2022, he was facing corruption, bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges, although he denied the allegations. He came to power with a coalition of right-wing and religious parties. Initially, he made the overhauling of the judicial system a top priority. His Government had announced a series of proposals, including the reform of the Israeli Parliament. However, the most notable among all the reform proposals was a plan to offer unlimited power to his government by weakening the judicial system. The initial keystone of this proposal was a plan to pass an override clause that would allow the smallest possible majority in the Knesset to overrule decisions by the Supreme Court. This plan is indeed serious, as it can alter the balance of power among the three organs of the Government-the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary.
Moreover, unlike many other democratic countries, Israel does not have a written constitution of its own. Thus, the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative is too weak, as the Government always holds a majority in Parliament. Therefore, the Supreme Court is the only organ that can easily curtail the powers of the Government. The current situation is that if the Bill is passed, then a simple majority of just 61 votes in the Knesset could cancel any ruling by the Supreme Court. The proposed rebalancing of the power equation will actually lead to the imbalance of the existing administrative system of the country.
After having a discussion with US President Joe Biden, Netanyahu has softened his stand a little. The concession would include giving the Israeli Government less power to select new judges but still more power than it has now.
The irony is that his government officials are speaking against the reform proposals. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said the judicial reform needs to be halted for the security of Israel. He was fired by Netanyahu, and afterward, massive protests erupted in Tel Aviv. Economy Minister Nir Barkat said that Netanyahu could stop and recalculate the plan. To him, these reforms are ‘necessary, and we will do it, but not at the cost of a civil war.
Netanyahu is heading for a crisis. But he is known for manoeuvering through such troubles in the past and throughout his political career. Today, no one will believe that the World Happiness Report released in early March has listed Israel as the fourth happiest nation in the world.
This May, Israel turned 75 years old. With a continued threat from neighbouring Arab nations, especially from Iran, Israel has bravely stood its ground. Therefore, any attempt to tilt the balance may derail the already existing democratic culture of the nation. Netanyahu, as he is popularly called, must learn from the writing on the walls. It’s not an era of autocracy in the name of democracy. But Netanyahu says he will change the judicial system prudently and responsibly. Nevertheless, the Israeli President has already warned that a civil war is “within touching distance”.
Netanyahu, be aware.
(The writer is currently president of the Global Research Foundation)