Last weekend, tens of thousands of Israelis – carrying banners and shouting slogans –rallied across towns and cities for the ninth straight week, protesting against the Netanyahu government’s proposal to introduce sweeping and far-reaching judicial reforms.
The mass protests marked a significant shift in the mood of Israelis, coming barely a few months after they voted in Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government in December last year.
The protesters are opposed to a legislation drafted by Netanyahu and his allies, limiting the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive. It also gives lawmakers sweeping powers to appoint judges.
According to Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition allies – the most right-wing government in the country’s history – the legislative reforms are needed to rein in the “excessive power” of Israel’s Supreme Court and to restore the ability to govern that has been “usurped by the court”.
The Judicial Selection Committee (JSC) has the authority over the judges’ appointments in Israel, aiming to achieve a compromise between assuring professional appointments and permitting political involvement in the selection process. The committee has nine members, including two ministers, the Supreme Court president, two additional SC judges, two Parliament representatives, and two representatives from the bar association. The government says that judges have veto power in the current system.
It is seeking to alter the composition of the JSC to give the government complete control over the selection of all judges as well as a permanent majority in the committee.
In line with the new judicial plan, the coalition government will increase the number of judges from 9 to 11, out of whom 7 will be elected by the government. This increase translates to the government getting absolute control of the process of nominating judges.
Another reform provision would grant the 120-member parliament the authority to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority of 61 votes.
According to reports, should parliament decide to clear Netanyahu of the corruption accusations for which he is being prosecuted, the new system will give the government the authority to nullify any adverse ruling by the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu has rejected any link between the reforms and his personal court case and has disputed the allegations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
What critics say
Critics of the proposed reforms, on the other hand, consider them as an attempt by the government to eliminate any limitations on its own power, endanger civil liberties, as well as a direct attack on the separation of powers.
Critics and the majority of the population, including members of Israel’s business, academic, legal and even military communities, view the right-wing government’s extensive reform agenda as anti-democratic.
Ehud Barak, one of Israel’s former prime ministers and former chief of staff who participated in the protests in Tel Aviv, called the judicial overhaul “an assassination of the declaration of independence,” describing the current situation as “the worst crisis since the formation of the state.”
Despite the protests, the Netanyahu government says it intends to go ahead with the reforms.