Explainer: Uproar over Israeli judicial changes – what’s it all about?

Updated: Mar 27, 2023, 14:21 UTC

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Israelis demonstrated outside Israel's parliament on Monday, as lawmakers took initial legislative steps towards enacting judicial changes proposed by the hard-right coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that have drawn widespread criticism at home and abroad.

Israelis demonstrate on the day Israel's constitution committee is set to vote on judicial plan, in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced increasing pressure on Monday to put the brakes on his government’s drive to enact sweeping changes to the Israeli judiciary, with hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets.

The courts overhaul plan has sparked unprecedented public anger since Netanyahu’s coalition of hard-right and religious parties came to power late last year, and has also caused alarm among Israel’s Western allies.

What is the government’s problem with the judiciary?

Critics of the Supreme Court including many in the coalition government say the bench is left-leaning and elitist and has become too interventionist in the political sphere, while often putting minority rights before national interests.

What does the coalition want?

The government has been pursuing changes that would limit the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, while according coalition lawmakers more power in appointing judges.

The panel for selecting judges currently requires politicians and judges who sit on it to agree on appointments. The present proposal would change that, giving coalition governments decisive sway.

Netanyahu, who is formally barred from involvement in the initiative as he is on trial on corruption charges that he denies, has said such changes aim to balance and diversify the Supreme Court bench. He has also accused the media of misrepresenting the plan and fanning the flames of protest in order to topple his government.

Why are so many israelis protesting?

Israel’s democratic “checks and balances” are relatively fragile. It has no constitution, only “basic laws” meant to help safeguard its democratic foundations. In its one-chamber Knesset (parliament), the government holds a 64-56 majority in seats.

Critics say the changes will weaken the courts and hand unbridled power to the government, endangering democratic rights and liberties with catastrophic effects on the economy and relations with Western allies, who have already voiced concern.

A judiciary no longer seen as independent could also strip Israel of one of its main defences in potential international legal cases, which may include any allegations of war crimes in its long-running conflict with the Palestinians.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant called on Saturday for the government to pull the legislation, saying disputes over the measures are threatening Israel’s security, with thousands of army reservists joining protests and refusing call-ups for training.

What other factors are at play?

Critics fear Netanyahu wants to leverage the judicial shake-up to void his graft trial or exert influence in any appeal at the Supreme Court. He has denied having any such intentions.

The opposition also says Netanyahu’s nationalist allies want to weaken the Supreme Court to expand Jewish settlements in occupied territory which the Palestinians seek for a state.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the coalition want to pass a law exempting their community from service in the conscript military, a step they worry might be struck down by the highest court if its powers are not cut back.

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has long felt hounded by the court with respect to military service.

What’s next?

The government had been aiming for final ratification of the changes to selection of judges by April 2, when lawmakers go on spring recess. Other changes, some of which have been approved at the first of three Knesset readings required for ratification, have been deferred until parliament reconvenes on April 30.

But Netanyahu was on Monday widely expected to freeze the legislation after his decision to sack his defence minister, who proposed delaying the reforms, provoked a massive street protest. That also prompted other senior members of his party to call for a pause, while the main labour union went on strike.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Steven Scheer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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