By Maayan Lubell
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relaunched his government’s quest to change Israel’s justice system, rekindling unprecedented nationwide protests.
On Monday, the Knesset is scheduled to vote on a bill that limits Supreme Court powers, a first of three parliamentary readings. Protests are likely to intensify if it passes.
Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist government launched its judicial overhaul plan in January, soon after it was sworn in. The proposed changes included curbs on the Supreme Court’s writ, while granting the government decisive powers in appointing judges. But with increasing alarm among Israel’s Western allies, swelling unrest and a falling shekel currency, Netanyahu suspended the push in late March to allow for talks with opposition parties. Those fell through three months later and Netanyahu relaunched the legislation, scrapping some of the originally proposed changes, such as a clause that would have allowed parliament to override a court ruling, while moving forward with others.
WHAT IS THE NEW ‘REASONABLENESS’ BILL?
It is an amendment that would limit the Supreme Court’s ability to void decisions made by the government, ministers and elected officials by stripping the judges of the power to deem such decisions “unreasonable.” Proponents say this would allow more effective governance while still leaving the court with other standards of judicial review, such as proportionality. Critics say that without constitutionally based checks and balances, this would open the door to corruption and abuses of power.
WHAT’S THE GOVERNMENT’S PROBLEM WITH THE JUDICIARY?
Many in the ruling coalition see the bench as left-leaning, elitist and too interventionist in the political sphere, often putting minority rights before national interests and assuming authority that should only be in the hands of elected officials.
WHY ARE SO MANY ISRAELIS PROTESTING?
They believe democracy is in danger. Many fear that even as he argues his innocence in a long-running corruption trial, Netanyahu and his hard-right government will curb judicial independence, with serious diplomatic and economic fallout. Polls have shown the overhaul to be unpopular with most Israelis, who are mainly concerned about rising living costs and security issues.
WHY ARE PROPOSED CHANGES STIRRING SUCH SERIOUS CONCERN?
Israel’s democratic “checks and balances” are relatively fragile. It has no constitution, only “basic laws” meant to help safeguard its democratic foundations. In the one-chamber Knesset the government holds a 64-56 majority in seats. The president’s office is largely ceremonial so the Supreme Court is seen as a bastion of democracy protecting civil rights and rule of law. The United States has urged Netanyahu to seek broad agreement on judicial reforms and to keep the judiciary independent.
ARE THERE OTHER CHANGES PLANNED?
Unclear. Netanyahu has indicated that he wants changes to the way judges are picked but not necessarily the ones already crafted in another bill that awaits a final Knesset reading. There are proposals being floated, including changes to legal advisers’ positions. Opposition lawmakers say his coalition is trying to carry out a piecemeal overhaul that will gradually restrict the courts’ independence, one law at a time. The coalition says it is pursuing justice reforms responsibly.
(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; editing by Mark Heinrich)
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