April 20, 2024

Israeli Lawmakers Accept Supreme Court’s Diminishing Law

On a day of unrest both on the streets and in the halls of power, Israeli lawmakers on Monday enacted a major law change to weaken the judiciary, capping a month-long campaign by the right-wing ruling coalition that has pitted Israel against each other with rare ferocity.

There was a large protest crowd outside the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, and the opposition inside shouting that the change was a devastating blow to the rule of law, the rights of citizens and democracy itself. Coalition MPs countered that it was the judiciary that threatened democracy, and said they planned to take further steps to prevent it.

The fight over the law, which has sparked the most widespread demonstrations in the country’s history, reflects a deepening divide between those who want a more overtly Jewish and religious Israel, and those who want to preserve a more secular, pluralistic society.

The move gives Israel’s Supreme Court the power to overturn government actions and appointments it deems “unreasonable,” a practice Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition says gave the court veto power over the will of the majority. Still on the coalition’s agenda are plans to give the government more power in selecting Supreme Court judges, among other changes.

“From today, Israel will be a little more democratic, a little more Jewish, and we will be able to do more in our offices,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, told reporters. “With God’s help, this will only be the beginning.”

Opponents say that in a nation with a unicameral Parliament and no written constitution, the power of the court is the only check on unjust majority rule. They say Monday’s change clears a key hurdle for the government – the right-wing, most religiously conservative nationalist in the country’s history – and could be used to delay Mr Netanyahu’s corruption prosecution.

Critics of the overall judicial reform package proposed by the government fear that, if enacted, it could accelerate the construction of the West Bank settlement, with part or all of that region annexed; restricting the rights of non-Jews; expanding the power of rabbinical leaders; and allowing discrimination against LGBTQ people and women. Mr. Netanyahu has said that individual rights will be protected, but many Israelis no longer believe him.

“We face a clear and immediate danger: continued oppressive legislation, the appointment of political judges, trampling on the gates and the dismissal of the attorney general” overseeing the prosecution of the prime minister, said Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition Blue and White party.

Talks seeking a last-minute compromise were held until hours before the vote, but eventually broke down and the ruling coalition decided to press on. The measure won final passage by a vote of 64 to 0, after all opposition members in the 120-seat Knesset walked out.

While demonstrators in Jerusalem clashed with security forces who fired water cannons, many businesses across the country closed in protest, Israel’s largest labor union threatened a general strike, and, perhaps worst of all for the government, 10,000 military reservists threatened to quit, potentially disrupting some functions of the armed forces.

Protesters spent the night outside Parliament; some were on the road for five days, sleeping in tents and marching to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Throughout the day, hundreds of government opponents tried to block roads leading to the building, including some who chained themselves together, and blocked the main entrance to the Knesset. Police officers sprayed them with water hoses and dirty liquid, making arrests and pushing them back.

Masses of demonstrators tried to break through the police barriers through the rose garden near the Knesset, shouting, beating drums and blowing noisemakers, before being turned away by the police. The din could be heard inside, and it reached fever pitch when the prime minister cast his vote.

“I’m here to try to stop the government committing suicide,” said one protester, Noam Shaham, 60, an engineer. “The government is trying to get power without any control. We only have the judicial branch to stop them, and they want to stop it.”

Some government supporters paused long enough to argue – or shout – with the demonstrators before moving on.

Inside the Knesset, opposition lawmakers shouted down the defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who publicly protested the decision to go ahead with the legislation, largely out of concern about the effect of the reservists’ protest on military readiness – but voted for it.

Discussing the many proposed reforms ahead of the final vote, he repeatedly clashed on the floor of Parliament with Yariv Levin, the justice minister who is seen as the architect of the overhaul – even though they both belong to Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Street demonstrations continued across the country after midnight. Officers on horseback tried to push protesters off a road in Tel Aviv but were unable to, and some in the crowd set fires in the streets. The police in Jerusalem again used water cannons against people gathered outside the Supreme Court building. Chaotic images like the main news broadcasts during the day and Monday night.

Mr Netanyahu struck a conciliatory tone at a televised address on Monday night, a day after undergoing an emergency procedure to implant a cardiac pacemaker. He appealed to military reservists not to leave the service, saying, “We have one country, one town, one people.”

“In the coming days the coalition will contact the opposition with the aim of holding a dialogue between us,” the prime minister said, noting that the Knesset is in recess on Wednesday and will not meet again until October. “We are ready to discuss everything, immediately and during the break, and if more time is needed, until the end of November.”

Such declarations were ringing in his opponents, after months of fruitless talks on a compromise.

The opposition considered, without much hope, their prospects of blocking the law – for example by asking the Supreme Court to overturn the very measure designed to restore it.

After a year and a half out of power, Mr Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, formed a government in December with parties previously considered to be on the fringes of the country’s politics. Among them are far-right nationalists who want an expanded Israel that is expressly a state for Jews and includes part or all of the West Bank, as well as ultra-Orthodox parties.

“Today, Netanyahu saw an unprecedented show of weakness,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said after the vote. “There is no prime minister in Israel. Netanyahu has become the puppet of a series of messianic extremists.”

Mr Ben-Gvir said his party, which Mr Netanyahu must govern, would not accept any compromise on the judicial bill, and demanded a “massive mandate” for the government’s proposed changes in the election last November.

But opinion polls have consistently shown more Israelis oppose the judicial reform than support it, and former heads of the security services have advised against it.

In addition to deeply dividing Israelis, the measure has alienated some of Israel’s American allies such as President Biden, who has repeatedly warned against it.

“As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has expressed his views publicly and privately that major changes to a democracy that is to survive must have as broad a consensus as possible,” his press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that today’s vote took place with the smallest possible majority.”

Israel’s opposition said it would petition the Supreme Court to strike down the law, and a rights group said it had already asked the court to step in. The measure amends one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which acts almost like a constitution. Experts said the court had never touched on an element of Basic Law, and it was unclear whether the court would accept the matter.

Another idea that emerged was that President Isaac Herzog refused to sign the bill. He tried to mediate a compromise on the reform. But Mr. Herzog’s role is largely ceremonial, it is unclear whether he would go along with the plan, and some experts said they doubted the lack of a signature would carry any legal burden.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Aaron Boxerman from London and Richard Perez-Pena from New York. The reporting contributed Patrick Kingsley, Yazbek error, Jonathan Rosen, Myra Noveck and Roni Rabin from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *