JERUSALEM (AP) – For seven months, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to reform the judiciary weaken the Supreme Court.
On Monday, the first part of this legislative package was passed: lawmakers passed a measure preventing judges from overturning government decisions on the grounds that they are “unfounded”.
Here’s a look at the reform — and why it’s led to the most sustained and intense demonstrations the country has ever seen.
What is included in the overhaul?
The overhaul requires far-reaching changes aimed at reducing the powers of the judiciary.
Proposals include a bill that would allow a simple majority in Parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions. Another would give Parliament the final say in choosing judges.
Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox religious allies say the package aims to restore power to elected officials – and limit the power of unelected judges.
Demonstrators, who represent a broad cross-section of Israeli society, fear reform will propel Israel toward autocracy. They say it is a power takeover fueled by multiple quarters personal and political grievances by Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his allies.
On Monday, Parliament passed a bill stripping the Supreme Court of the power to overrule government decisions the court deems “unreasonable.”
Proponents say the current standard of “reasonableness” gives judges undue power over elected officials’ decision-making. But critics say scrapping the standard, which is rarely used, would allow the government to make arbitrary decisions, make inappropriate appointments or dismissals and open the floodgates to corruption.
According to Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, protesters say Netanyahu and his allies want to change the law so they can appoint miners to government posts — and specifically so they can sack the country’s independent attorney general.
The measures “make it more difficult to control” arbitrary decisions by elected officials, said Yohanan Plesner, the institute’s president. “This is one chapter of a broader government plan and program to weaken the separation of powers.”
Netanyahu has dismissed allegations that the plan would destroy Israel’s democratic foundations as absurd. “This is an attempt to mislead you about something that has no basis in reality,” he said.
Why are the protesters so determined to protect justice?
Given Israel’s relatively weak system of separation of powers, the judiciary plays a major role in controlling executive power in the country.
In the US, for example, the Congress has two chambers that act independently of the President and can limit his powers. But in Israel, the prime minister and his majority coalition in parliament work hand in hand.
This leaves the judiciary “the only control of government power,” according to constitutional law professor Amichai Cohen.
In addition, Israel has minimal local governance and lacks a formal constitution. That means most power is centralized in Parliament, Cohen said. The “Basic Laws” – basic laws that experts call a kind of informal constitution – can be changed at any time by a simple majority.
With the reform, according to Cohen, the Israeli parliament is now threatening to further consolidate its power by weakening the judiciary.
“The government can do whatever it wants because it controls the ability to change even the most basic of laws,” Cohen said.
Historically, the Israeli judiciary has played a role in protecting the rights of minorities, from Palestinian citizens of Israel to non-citizens and African asylum seekers, Cohen said.
The weakening of the judiciary, critics say, will give the Israeli government — led by a male-dominated coalition whose members have advocated the full annexation of the occupied West Bank, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and Palestinian citizens of Israel, and curtailing women’s rights — near-total control.
“It will be a hollow democracy,” Fuchs said.
Didn’t Netanyahu put this plan on hold?
In the months since Netanyahu unveiled his plan, Protests erupted in major citiesManaging Director opposed the plan and, perhaps most critically, the threatened military reservists of the Israeli Air Force and other key units stop reporting for service if passed.
The protests prompted Netanyahu to pause reform in March and begin talks with opposition lawmakers. But the talks collapsed last month and Netanyahu announced in June that the revision would move forward.
The protesters accuse Netanyahu of changing tactics but not his overall goals, advancing at a slower, more measured pace to weaken the opposition.
“The government has gotten smarter,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the protest movement. “They saw the consequences of trying to push the overhaul and instead decided to do it piece by piece.”
What happens next?
A civil society group said it would challenge the new law to the Supreme Court.
Fuchs said the court could issue an “injunction” preventing the law from going into effect until it could conduct a proper review.
He said the government would likely comply with any such order. “But if they don’t, we’re going to have a constitutional crisis immediately.”
In the meantime, The protests that have shaken the country are likely to increase in intensity.