Since February 13, 2023, massive demonstrations have been taking place in Jerusalem, with approximately 100,000 Israelis gathered outside their Parliament. The demonstrations are being organised in opposition to the judicial reform plans proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. Report says, the protesters travelled from various parts of the country by train, bus, and car, carrying Israeli flags, megaphones, and handmade banners.
The demonstration focused on the protesters’ concerns about the proposed reform’s potential impact on democracy, freedom, and judicial independence. Slogans supporting these principles were chanted and displayed on the banners carried by the demonstrators.
Why these protests are happening?
Weekly protests have become a regular occurrence in Israel since December 2022 when Prime Minister Netanyahu and his far-right allies came to power. These demonstrations have intensified following the unveiling of the ruling coalition’s proposal to overhaul the country’s legal system by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who is a close confidant of Netanyahu.
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The proposal contains a total of four significant changes, including the government’s intention to grant the 120-member parliament, known as the Knesset, the power to override any Supreme Court judgement with a simple holding of 61 or more votes. This power was previously only used to strike down executive practices.
In addition to the proposed changes to the Supreme Court’s power, Justice Minister Yariv Levin has suggested a new law that would give lawmakers a greater role in the appointment of Supreme Court judges. Currently, a committee consisting of professionals, justices, and lawmakers appoints judges to the highest court of the country, the Supreme Court. The justice minister also proposed the other ministers to incorporate their own legal advisors to the duty, rather giving powers to some independent professionals.
On Monday, while tens of thousands of protestors gathered outside the Israeli Parliament, chaos ensued inside after a government-controlled committee voted to advance a portion of the proposed legislation. According to The New York Times, opposition leaders chanted slogans against the decision, and some even climbed over tables to confront the committee chair, Simcha Rothman, a government lawmaker.
According to The New York Times, Monday’s committee vote is just one of the initial steps towards turning the proposal into law in the coming months. The article also mentions that this vote will be followed by intense debates on the floor of Parliament, indicating that the legal overhaul will continue to be a subject of political discussion and debate.
Why Netanyahu is trying to change the system?
The Israeli right-wing and conservative factions have long viewed the judiciary as a hindrance to their legislative goals. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government has stated that Israelis have lost confidence in the legal system and that its reform plans would restore power to elected representatives rather than “interventionist judges.”
Furthermore, the government aims to use its newfound power to override Supreme Court judgments to eliminate the court’s “rulings outlawing Israeli outposts on private Palestinian land” and restrict social reforms, including those that could impact the LGBTQ community, according to the Associated Press.
According to experts, the proposed reforms in the Israeli judiciary could potentially be used by the ruling parties to influence the on-going corruption trial of Prime Minister Netanyahu, which is currently under the jurisdiction of Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara. Although the proposed changes would not directly impact the on-going court case, many fear that this is just the beginning and that the government may later alter the laws to exonerate Netanyahu.
These concerns are not unfounded, as last year, during the election campaign; Netanyahu’s allies suggested restricting the attorney general’s power by dividing the post into three separate jobs while ensuring that minimum two of the posts are appointed politically. This move would have given the government more control over the legal system and would have made it easier to influence the outcome of cases, including Netanyahu’s corruption trial.
Currently, in Israel, the Attorney General is nominated by the government and requires approval from a professional committee consisting of former justice officials and other experts. It is worth noting that the current Attorney General, Gali Baharav-Miara, was appointed during the previous government’s tenure led by the current opposition leader, Yair Lapid.
Why are so many leaders warning of violence?
President Herzog is not the only one to suggest the possibility of violence due to the proposed judicial reforms in Israel. According to The Times of Israel, Yair Lapid, the current opposition leader, warned at a press conference on Monday that the legislation “threatens to destroy the country at breakneck speed.” He further said, “If this legislation gets promoted, the democratic chapter in the country will see an end.”
Former defence minister Benny Gantz has also expressed concern about the possibility of civil war. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has accused his critics of “taking the country toward anarchy” and emphasized that “most citizens of Israel don’t want anarchy. They expect focused discourse, and, finally, they want unity as well.”
According to several political leaders and opinion polls, there is growing concern about the potential for increased tension within Israel due to the proposed judicial reforms. Recent polls indicate that Israeli society is deeply divided on the issue, with roughly 44% in favor of the reforms and 41% opposing them, according to a recent survey by the Jewish People Policy Institute, a research group based in Jerusalem. Additionally, there has been an uptick in violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank, with 47 Palestinians and 10 Israelis having been killed so far this year. Experts fear that these protests and increased violence could lead to a further deterioration of law and order in the country.
The current ruling government in Israel comprises of far-right parties, ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders and controversial figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir, who recently visited the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a disputed holy site in Jerusalem. Human rights activists warn that tensions between the Palestinian minority, which forms around 20% of the wider population, and Israeli nationalists may escalate due to the government’s policies. According to a report by the NYT, “Israelis and Palestinians have already experienced one of their region’s most violent phases, outside a full-scale war, in years” within the two months of the new government’s tenure.