Explained | Why has Israel paused the judicial reform plan?

An Israeli protester throws a placard on a bonfire after clashes erupt during a demonstration against the government’s judicial overhaul on March 27, 2023 in Jerusalem.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

The story so far: On the night of March 27, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would delay his government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary by a month. The government’s plan had triggered massive protests and strikes by the opposition, civil society as well as unions who accused the government of weakening the judiciary. Mr. Netanyahu, who came to power late last year with the support of ultra-orthodox and far-right parties, says he will not step back from the plan but seek to build consensus before pushing to pass it in the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament).

What is the government’s plan?

The judicial reform plan has a set of proposals which, together, will strengthen the government’s hand over the country’s courts. Currently, the Supreme Court can strike down any law passed by the Knesset. The government proposal seeks to curtail judicial review over legislation and then empower Parliament to override court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes (out of 120). Another proposed change seeks to abolish the “reasonability test”— the Supreme Court will no longer be able to judge the reasonability of Knesset legislation, government decisions or appointments. The government also seeks to take control of judicial appointments. Under the current set-up, judges are chosen by a nine-member committee — three Supreme Court judges (including the court President), two members of the Israeli Bar Association, two members from the Knesset and two from the government (Ministers). According to the proposed reforms, the members of the Bar Association would be replaced by two “public representatives” picked by the government, which means the government will have a majority of votes in the committee.

Why is the government pushing these Bills?

Over the years, Israel’s polity has shifted towards the extreme right. The current government, composed of Likud (right-wing), United Torah Judaism and Shas (ultra-Orthodox) and Religious Zionist and Jewish Power (extreme right), is the most right-wing government in the country’s history. The far-right and religious parties have argued that Israel has lost its balance between the judiciary and the executive and the legislature. They are essentially saying that the judiciary is controlled by liberals and leftists, while the polity has shifted to the right. The government wants to give mass exemption from conscription to religious Jews. They have also passed a law preventing legal authorities from removing the Prime Minister from office terming him “unfit to rule” (only the Knesset and the Cabinet can remove the leader from office). But the government fears that the Supreme Court can strike down these plans unless the judiciary’s powers are clipped. So for right-wing parties, the existing judicial structure is an impediment for their push to remake the Israeli state.

Why did Mr. Netanyahu back off?

The government’s move to table the Bills in the Knesset triggered immediate protests. The protesters said that the Bills would weaken the judiciary and destroy the checks and balances in the system. Mr. Netanyahu himself is facing multiple charges and the Attorney General had asked him to stay away from the judicial overhaul. Earlier this year, the Prime Minister had to drop one of his ultra-Orthodox colleagues from the Cabinet after the Supreme Court said the appointment of Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas, as a Minister, was “highly unreasonable”. They said the reforms, if passed, would give the government unchecked powers over the courts. Mr. Nentanyahu initially dismissed the protests, while Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right leader of Jewish Power, warned the Prime Minister against “surrendering to the anarchists”. But the protests only grew in strength, drawing in criticism from abroad as well. The turning point was Defence Minister Yoav Gallant breaking ranks with the Prime Minister. Mr. Gallant, a former Major General and a member of the Prime Minister’s Likud party, asked the coalition to delay the judicial overhaul, citing security concerns. Opposition to the Bills had spread to Israel’s reservists as well as its diplomatic community. Some of the military reservists, in protest, failed to report, mounting pressure on the defence establishment. Mr. Nentanyahu fired Mr. Gallant, but it only made matters worse. Spontaneous protests broke out across the country on Monday and Israel’s largest union, with some 8,00,000 members, struck work, grounding flights, shutting government officers, universities and public places. Faced with unprecedented public anger, Mr. Netanyahu decided to delay his plans.

What happens next?

For now, Mr. Netanyahu, despite the setback, has managed to keep his right-religious coalition together. But Israeli media have reported that to get Mr. Ben-Gvir’s approval for the delay, the Prime Minister has agreed to form a new security body called the national guard under Ben-Gvir’s National Security Ministry. Mr. Ben-Gvir and other allies have supported the delay for now, but they have not backtracked from their push to reform the judiciary. Mr. Netanyahu plans to build consensus with main opposition parties Yesh Atid and Blue and White before pushing for the Bills. But it’s not clear how much compromise Mr. Netanyahu’s allies would accept. Even if a compromise formula emerges, how will the Prime Minister sell it to the public as the protests were not driven by opposition parties alone. Mr. Netanyahu, who first came to power in 1996, has seen many a rise and fall. From every challenge, he has emerged stronger. But this is perhaps the biggest political challenge he is facing in his career.

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