Israel’s Judicial Overhaul: What to Know


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After a three-month hiatus, Israel’s far-right governing coalition moved forward early Tuesday with part of its deeply contentious plan to limit judicial powers, a gambit that critics say will undermine Israel’s democracy and that has deepened rifts within the society.

Lawmakers held a first reading from Monday night into early Tuesday of a bill that would limit the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down decisions by elected officials. The provisional move passed by a vote of 64 to 56.

It was expected to unleash widespread street demonstrations on Tuesday, summoning memories of a wave of social unrest in March, when antigovernment protesters blocked major roads, union leaders organized a nationwide strike, and thousands of military reservists declined to volunteer for duty.

The dispute is part of a wider ideological and cultural standoff between the government and its supporters, who want to create a more religious and nationalist state, and their opponents, who hold a more secular and pluralist vision.

The bill still needs to pass two further readings in the coming weeks before it becomes law. If enacted in full, it would prevent the court from overruling the government on grounds of “reasonableness” — a flexible and contentious legal standard that currently lets the court intervene in governance.

The governing coalition advanced the bill because its members say that the court has too much leeway to intervene in political decisions and that it undermines Israeli democracy by giving unelected judges too much power over elected lawmakers.

The coalition says the court has too often acted against right-wing interests — for instance by preventing some construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank or striking down certain privileges granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews, like exemption from military service.

To limit the court’s influence, the government seeks to stop its judges from using the concept of “reasonableness” to countermand decisions by lawmakers and ministers.

Reasonableness is a legal standard used by many judicial systems, including Australia, Britain and Canada. A decision is deemed unreasonable if a court rules that it was made without considering all relevant factors or without giving relevant weight to each factor, or by giving irrelevant factors too much weight.

The government and its backers say that reasonableness is too vague a concept, and one never codified in Israeli law. The court angered the government this year when some of its judges used the tool to bar Aryeh Deri, a veteran ultra-Orthodox politician, from serving in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet. They said it was unreasonable to appoint Mr. Deri because he had recently been convicted of tax fraud.

Supporters of the proposed new law also say that the court already has enough other tools to review and restrict government decisions. In the past, the court has often ruled against right-wing interests without using the concept of reasonableness — for instance, when it prevented certain kinds of settlement construction in the West Bank.

The plan is “not the end of democracy but rather the strengthening of democracy,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a video message on Monday, shortly before the vote.

“The independence of the courts and civil rights in Israel will not be harmed in any way,” he added.

Opponents fear that if the bill becomes law, the court will be much less able to prevent government overreach.

They say that the government, untrammeled by the reasonableness standard, may find it easier to end the prosecution of Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges.

In particular, some warn that the government would be freer to replace the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who oversees Mr. Netanyahu’s prosecution. Mr. Netanyahu denies any plan to disrupt his trial.

Critics also fear that the changes may allow the government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israeli history — to restrict civil liberties or undermine secular aspects of Israeli society.

“I call on the prime minister: Do not abandon the State of Israel, do not abandon the citizens of Israel,” said Benny Gantz, an opposition leader, during the debate in Parliament that preceded the vote.

“Stop everything,” Mr. Gantz added. “This is the last call before the abyss.”

The government initially tried to enact even more contentious bills that would give it more control over the selection of Supreme Court judges, restrict the court’s ability to override Parliament and allow Parliament the right to override the court. Mr. Netanyahu paused those efforts abruptly in March, after a wave of strikes and protests shut down parts of the country, business leaders began to divest from the Israeli economy and a growing number of reserve soldiers said they would refuse to volunteer for duty.

The government then negotiated with opposition leaders for weeks in an effort to find a compromise. Mr. Netanyahu also promised not to proceed with the override proposal, one of the most contentious parts of the plan.

But the opposition quit those talks last month, after governing lawmakers obstructed the process by which new judges are appointed — a move that the opposition said undermined their faith in the negotiations.

In response, the government decided to move ahead with lower-profile aspects of the overhaul, principally scrapping the reasonableness mechanism.

Even with those modifications, the opposition movement still believes that the plan endangers democracy and reduces the checks and balances on government activity. They also say that the government will be emboldened to carry out more dangerous parts of the overhaul if the reasonableness standard is scrapped.

Though it is not a final decision, the vote is expected reignite the kind of disruptive mass demonstrations that brought the country to a standstill in the spring.

Mass events were planned for Monday evening and Tuesday, when protesters are expected to hold rallies and block roads and access to key infrastructure, like the main airport.

Even before the vote began on Monday evening, several protesters were detained after they tried to glue themselves to part of the voting chamber in Parliament.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.


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