Despite several weeks of mass protests across Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is going ahead with new legislation that would bridle the power of the Supreme Court.
On Monday night, February 20th, following an eight-hour-long debate, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, ratified the government’s two proposals on its first reading. For these to be enshrined into law, two more votes in favor are needed from parliament.
As Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition holds 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, the outcome was expected. The two revisions of the law comprise granting the government the right to choose judges while limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to prevent legislation from being passed.
For Netanyahu, this is a win. The coalition argues that the law would restrain activist judges, and claims it received a mandate for the change in last year’s November 1st elections.
Netanyahu noted that it was “a great night and a great day.”
Israeli citizens, however, see the new legislation differently. According to a survey by The Israel Democracy Institute, conducted from February 9th through the 13th, 66% of those polled believe the Supreme Court should retain its power to strike down a law if it is incompatible with Israel’s Basic Laws.
In addition, 63% prefer to maintain the existing selection process for top judges—currently, politicians and justices must reach a mutual agreement on judicial appointments.
On the day of the vote, just like last week, tens of thousands of demonstrators flocked to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Following the outcome, opponents fear the new legislation would give the government undue power. “History will judge you for this night,” opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted. Citing the damage it would do to Israel’s democracy, its economy, and security, he accused Netanyahu and his allies of “tearing the people of Israel apart.”
Before the Knesset’s approval, Lapid tweeted that “out of the disaster that moves us, a mass movement grows,” promising that such a movement would emerge victorious.
Israel’s politically unstable situation has investors alarmed, while Israel’s currency, the shekel, while not quite cratering, is nearing a three-year low.
Detractors believe that, without an independent Supreme Court, the nation would fall victim to the incumbent government’s whims. Netanyahu and his coalition, they fear, would steer Israel in a more conservative direction. Critics also suspect Netanyahu will seek to instrumentalise the new law to avoid being tried on three counts of corruption.
Western partner countries—the U. S. in particular—view the situation with wariness.
After U.S. President Joe Biden reminded Israelis of the importance of an independent judiciary, last weekend, Tom Nides, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, told a podcast that Netanyahu’s government should “pump the brakes” and try to reach a consensus on the reforms.
“The one thing that binds our countries together is a sense of democracy and a sense of democratic institutions,” he noted, which was “how we defend Israel at the UN.”
Israel’s diaspora minister Amichai Chikli did not take kindly to Nides’ admonishment. To state broadcaster Kan, he said that the American ambassador should “put on the brakes” himself and mind his own business.
On Tuesday, February 21st, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk, voiced the body’s concern over Israel’s direction.
“Breaking from decades of settled practice, such a law would drastically undermine the ability of the judiciary to vindicate individual rights and to uphold the rule of law as an effective institutional check on executive and legislative power,” he warned.
Following the surge of criticism, later that day Netanyahu called for dialogue with his detractors.
In a video statement, the prime minister proposed to talk, “here and now,” and “without preconditions.” Together, he continued, we will “achieve a broad agreement for the benefit of all the citizens of Israel, for the benefit of our country.”