Israel: why the justice reform text adopted by the Knesset is causing concern

Eight months that the Israelis express their anger to challenge a justice reform wanted by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. But the street will ultimately not have been heard. The Knesset, the country’s parliament, on Monday (July 24th) approved a landmark measure that prevents judges from overturning government decisions it deems “unreasonable”.

It was approved by the 64 elected officials (out of 120 seats in total) from the coalition of Benjamin Netanyahu, who insisted on being present despite his recent hospitalization for the installation of a cardiac simulator. Opposite elected officials have chosen to boycott the vote. This is the first major component of the judicial reform, announced by the government on January 4, to become law. Franceinfo explains why this measure is causing an outcry in Israel.

A weakened Supreme Court

The text, adopted on Monday at second and third reading, relates to the “reasonableness clause”. Until then, the Supreme Court could overrule government decisions deemed unreasonable. But the Supreme Court’s critics said it misinterpreted Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as the Constitution, and that by striking down laws, it was abusing its powers.

With this reform, a clause now prevents the judiciary from invalidating a government decision by judging its “reasonableness”. Clearly, the judiciary weakens vis-à-vis the executive power.

To understand the impact of such a measure, it suffices to look at a recent example from the news of Israel. In January, the Supreme Court invalidated the appointment of Arie Dery, convicted of tax evasion, as Minister of the Interior and Health. She had considered it unreasonable that he sits in the government. Binyamin Netanyahu, angry with the judges, had been forced to dismiss him from office.

The fear of an anti-democratic drift

A few hours before the vote, hundreds of demonstrators, still believing in a turnaround, blocked the entrance to Parliament despite police water cannons. According Ha’aretz, a left-wing Israeli daily, the mobilization continued once the text was adopted, with thousands of demonstrators in various places in Jerusalem. Among them, a former prosecutor took the floor and accused the Prime Minister of “wage a fierce and harmful struggle against the state that put him on trial, the Netanyahu case against the State of Israel”, relates Ha’aretz.

While the government believes that this reform is necessary to ensure a better balance of powers, its critics see it as a threat to democracy. Popular protest has brought together tens of thousands of demonstrators every week since January. With an unprecedented situation: even the army, usually little rebellious against the executive, challenges the bill. At least 1,100 Air Force reservists are threatening to suspend their voluntary service. The United States also urged staunch ally Israel not to rush. “I‘objective should be to bring people together and find a consensus’, US President Joe Biden said on Sunday.

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In the wake of Monday’s key vote, Yaïr Lapid, opposition MP and former Prime Minister, assured that he would not give up. “First thing tomorrow (Tuesday), we will petition the High Court against this legislation, against the unilateral nullification of the democratic character of the State of Israel, and against the undemocratic and predatory manner in which discussions in the Constitution Committee were conducted.”he said at a press conference, reports the chain i24news.

Other provisions also disputed

Other provisions provoke the anger of the opposition, such as the one modifying the process for appointing judges, already adopted by the deputies at first reading. Judges, including those of the Supreme Court, are currently chosen by a nine-member commission made up of judges, MPs and barristers, under the supervision of the Minister of Justice. The bill plans to expand the presence of ministers and deputies, while removing lawyers from this panel.

The only reason for satisfaction for opponents: Benyamin Netanyahu abandoned the clause on June 29 “derogatory”, which also caused concern. Its purpose was to enable the Knesset, by a simple majority vote, to prevent the Supreme Court from striking down a law.

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