As Coalition Pushes Ahead With Judicial Overhaul, Opponents Vow To Ramp up Protests
The government is renewing its attempts to reduce the power of the judiciary to review legislation, prompting protesters to promise widespread disruptions around Israel
By Keren Setton/The Media Line
Political turmoil continued to boil over in Israel on Monday, with the government renewing its attempts to legislate its contentious judicial overhaul that is dividing the country.
A preliminary vote was scheduled for Monday on a bill that would prevent Israel’s courts from reviewing the reasonableness of laws passed by the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. This could allow Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to pass a law enabling a political ally previously convicted of bribery to be appointed a senior minister in his cabinet.
“The current reasonableness standard transfers a major portion of the ability of a government to govern to the judicial branch,” said Prof. Oded Modrick, a former Tel Aviv District Court judge. “There have been situations when a government was convinced its decision was very reasonable, but a small group of judges decided otherwise.”
Proponents of the reasonableness standard say that in the absence of a constitution, and with Israel having only a one-house parliament, the ability of the judiciary to review legislation on the grounds of reasonableness provides a valuable check-and-balance mechanism for the legislature. However, critics, including the current ruling coalition, saythe judiciary has applied the reasonableness standard too frequently in recent years, and often selectively, resulting in unelected judges imposing their will on the executive, elected, branch.
After winning the Israeli election late last year, the ruling coalition immediately initiated a barrage of legislation for what it termed necessary judicial reform, what opponents termed a “coup of the judiciary.” The move sparked unprecedented protests around the country that have continued for the past six months, with demonstrators expressing fears that Israeli democracy is being endangered.
In March, in response to domestic and international pressure, Netanyahu froze the legislation and began talks with the opposition on a compromise. However, the talks collapsed and the government announced that it would renew the legislation, this time in stages. The protests have continued and gained added momentum last week when the Tel Aviv police commander resigned, saying that members of the ruling coalition had intervened and had wanted him to use excessive force to remove protesters blockingroads.
“The protest movement is the largest and most impressive that Israel has ever seen. The struggle is about larger issues than the role of the judicial branch; it is about the identity of the country,” Dr. Tomer Persico, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Rubinstein fellow at Reichman University, told The Media Line.
“The protest has been very successful as it is now clear the reform will not pass in its original form.”
Dror Salee, an Israeli entrepreneur who founded five start-ups, two of which were sold to US giants Apple and Akamai, is one of the leaders of the protest movement.
“Since the day the government announced its plans, I have had two jobs – I am an entrepreneur and a political activist in the protests,” he said.
One of the main concerns of the high-tech sector in particular is the effect on the Israeli economy. The issue has already brought a fall in the value of the shekel and a drop in investments in Israeli high-tech, considered the main engine driving the country’s economy.
“Canceling the reasonableness standard is a very large chunk of the reform,” Salee said. “This rids the government of the obligation to operate within reasonableness, and this does not exist in any democracy. They will be able to fire all the gatekeepers and make political appointments in these positions.”
Salee and other protesters believe that Netanyahu’s move from his initial legislative blitz to a more staged approach is equally problematic and that the prime minister is banking on public apathy to small moves.
“A lot of damage can be done to democracy just with this law, and this is just the first stage,” Salee said.
The protest movement promised to step up demonstrations in response to the legislationand has called for massive disruption of daily life in the country.
However, the coalition members were standing firm.
“This is an essential need that is widely agreed upon,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich posted on Twitter hours before the vote. “The opposition is against everything because their real goal is to overthrow the government.”
There has been no official account of any progress made in talks held under the auspices of the Israeli president.
“The coalition has the majority, as was determined in the election, and there is really no need to seek a wider consensus,” Modrick said. “But in the current climate, when there is a portion of society that believes democracy is in danger and will not budge, it is important to take great pains in order to reach a consensus.”
And Persico said: “Such great frustration will eventually backlash. That is why there should be a compromise and the coalition should feel like it has accomplished something.”
He said the right wing had achieved its “dream team” with the current government, and Netanyahu’s coalition partners wanted to be able to implement their ideology without any hurdles, from the annexation of contentious West Bank territories to enshrining blanket military exemptions for ultra-orthodox Jews.
However, Netanyahu, a skilled politician, has other ambitions. Currently ostracized by the US administration, his campaign promises included normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia and curbing the Iranian nuclear program, for both of which he needs the US, which renounced the original judicial reform.
“There is a gap between Netanyahu and other, more extreme members of his coalition, who want to see the reform implemented in its entirety,” Modrick said. “Netanyahu will want to stabilize the economy and prevent what we are currently seeing. From his perspective, the reform is now less important and he has the power to rein in his partners.”
Persico said that the divisions in Israeli society were growing and Netanyahu had done little to douse the flames.
“The current populist leadership lives off hurling the sides against each other, and as long as this hatred is being built, it will be very difficult for Israel to function as one society,”he said.
Meanwhile, the protesters have vowed to intensify their demonstrations, including at Israel’s international airport and other disruptive actions. Talk about military reservists not showing up for duty has also resurfaced after being shot down when the legislation was frozen.
“This will be the greatest disruption ever seen. We won’t let this reform happen, so we have no choice,” Salee said.
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