On Tuesday, February 21st, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted 63–47 to advance a plan that would give Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government increased power over the Israeli judiciary. According to Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the plan would allow the Knesset a greater say in the selection of judges appointed to the country’s Supreme Court. It would also give the Knesset the power to override the court’s rulings by a 61-of-120-seat majority so long as the rulings are not unanimous.
Under the plan, the Supreme Court would be unable to overturn “Basic Laws,” foundational laws that stand in for the constitution Israel does not have. Among these laws are highly controversial pieces of legislation, such as the nation-state law, which sets the legal framework for discrimination against Arabs.
Critics say the plan would allow lawmakers to designate any law a Basic Law, effectively shielding the law from the courts.
Critics also say the plan would allow Netanyahu, who has been on trial for nearly three years, to escape the charges of accepting bribes, fraud, and breach of trust that he currently faces. Citing conflict of interest, Israel’s attorney general has prevented Netanyahu from being involved in the effort to pass the plan.
Having been replaced by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid as prime minister in 2021, Netanyahu and his Likud party returned to power in December 2022. They were joined by their ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, forming a coalition government under the guiding principle that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and unquestionable right to all areas of the land of Israel.”
With the plan’s introduction, Netanyahu’s opponents and allies have both claimed that the country’s democracy is at risk. Still, many of Netanyahu’s allies say that the judicial overhaul is necessary to limit the power of an unelected judiciary. Critics warn that Netanyahu will pack the Court with the prime minister’s own supporters.
Since the overhaul was announced, upwards of 100,000 Israelis have attended protests throughout the country. The protestors have included many sects of the Israeli public that rarely participate in demonstrations, such as tech employees, former government officials, religious Zionists from Netanyahu’s Likud party, settlers, and others. They claim that the reforms will destroy democracy in the country.
According to Netanyahu, the coalition government “received a clear and strong mandate from the public to carry out what we promised in the elections, and we will do so. [The judicial reform] is the realization of the voters’ will and this is the essence of democracy.”
When announcing the plan, Levin echoed Netanyahu, presenting it as a defense of democracy against unelected judges. “There are judges, but there is also a parliament and a government,” he said. “Democracy is in danger when we vote in the ballot box but each time officials that were not elected decide for us.”
Protestors argue against the coalition’s narrative, saying that they never gave Netanyahu their permission to overhaul the judiciary. At a recent rally, Avi Himi, chair of the Israel Bar Association, said to his crowd, “You never got a mandate to change the regime, you never got a mandate to destroy democracy. It’s our right to scream, it’s our obligation to scream, that’s how it is in a democracy.”
On March 1st, a group of 740 Israeli activists sent a letter to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, saying that “as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the two-state solution is dead.” In the letter, they asked that the US press sanctions against Israel.
Israeli Supreme Court President Esther Hayut shares protestors’ concerns. During the Israeli Association of Public Law’s January convention, she warned, “If the people who made up this plan have their way, the 75th year [since Israel’s founding] will be remembered as the year in which Israel’s democracy suffered a fatal blow.”
Hayut went on to stress the importance of an independent supreme court in protecting human rights. An independent court, she told the convention, is necessary to ensure that “the rule of the majority does not turn into the tyranny of the majority.”
Others, such as the governors of the Bank of Israel, fear that the plan could deal a “severe blow to the economy.” Key figures in the tech sector—which accounts for 15% of the country’s GDP and more than half of the country’s exports—have joined the protests, applying significant pressure to lawmakers of the self-proclaimed “start-up nation.”
Other Israelis embrace the reforms. On March 2nd, a petition in support of the reforms, already signed by a group of 120 academics, was launched. Signatories come from professors at top Israeli universities, including the Weizmann Institute of Science and Tel Aviv University.
Organized by Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor and Nobel laureate Robert Aumann, the petition claims that the Supreme Court has become too powerful. Particularly, they cite the Court’s jurisdiction over both regular and Basic Laws and its increased ability to pass judgment on the “reasonableness” of parliamentary decisions as disrupting Israel’s balance of power.
A response to roughly 700 other Israeli academics’ opposition to the reforms, the petition does call for the terms of the overhaul to be negotiated until they are broadly accepted.
Others see the reforms as the latest development in their battle against the liberal Supreme Court for the “soul of Israel.” Carnegie Mellon Endowment for International Peace Senior Fellow Aaron David Miller points out that “it was often the court, not the Knesset, that delivered equal rights for LGBTQ Israelis, women and minorities,” making the court a target for anyone aiming to suppress these groups.
Major US figures have indicated that the Biden Administration does not support Netanyahu’s overhaul.
In a statement to the New York Times, Biden wrote that “the genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary. Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Speaking for the Biden Administration, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides has also warned Netanyahu’s government to “pump the brakes” on the judicial overhaul.
In the CNN podcast interview, Nides reiterated that “the one thing that binds our countries together is a sense of democracy and a sense of democratic institutions…That is how we defend Israel at the UN.”
Jewish groups from around the world, including the traditionally-neutral North American Jewish Federations, have opposed the overhaul as well. In a public letter addressed to Netanyahu and Lapid, the organization wrote, “We recognize that any system of checks and balances will be different than those in our own countries, but such a dramatic change to the Israeli system of governance will have far-reaching consequences in North America, both within the Jewish community and in the broader society.”
“The essence of democracy,” the group continued, “is both majority rule and the protection of minority rights.”
This criticism from governments and organizations worldwide comes as tension mounts between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
On March 1st, Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich, who handles civil administration in the occupied West Bank, was quoted as saying, “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it.”
This comment came after far-right Israeli settlers set fire to dozens of houses and cars in the occupied West Bank village in response to the killing of two Israeli brothers by a Palestinian gunman.
Though the US is an ally to Israel, US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price condemned Smotrich’s remarks as “irresponsible,” “repugnant,” and “disgusting” during a March 1st press briefing. “We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments.”
Netanyahu has since tweeted that “it is important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric [and] lower the temperature.” He proceeded to indirectly label Smotrich’s comment as “inappropriate” while suggesting that the finance minister had misspoken: “That includes speaking out forcefully against inappropriate statements and even correcting our own statements when we misspeak or when our words are taken out of context.”
At a UN Human Rights Council meeting following Smoltrich’s comment, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said, “The situation in the occupied Palestinian territory is a tragedy, a tragedy above all for the Palestinian people.”
Türk continued to highlight the atrocities that Israel has carried out against the Palestinian people. Referring to a report he was presenting on the occupied territories, he said, “My report finds that over the reporting period, lethal force has been frequently employed by the Israeli security forces regardless of the level of threat and at times even as an initial measure rather than as a last resort.”
Türk reported that “131 Palestinians were killed by ISF personnel over the past year in a context of law enforcement that is outside any context of hostilities,” including “65 people who we understand were not armed nor engaged in any attacks or clashes.”
A few days earlier, on February 20th, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a “watered-down statement strongly opposing Israel’s continued construction of settlements.”
According to AP News, the Palestinian-backed draft resolution would “almost certainly” have been vetoed by Israel’s closest ally, the US.
As published, the statement “expresses deep concern and dismay with Israel’s announcement [of] further construction and expansion of settlements and the “legalization” of settlement outposts” and emphasizes UN support for the two-state solution.
In response, Netanyahu’s office issued a statement claiming that the UN statement “negates the rights of Jews to live in their historical homeland, ignores Palestinian terror attacks in Jerusalem in which 10 Israeli citizens were murdered this month, turns a blind eye to the fact that the Palestinian Authority subsidizes terror and pays the families of terrorists, and diminishes the antisemitism that led to the murder of millions of Jews.”
Riyad Mansour, Palestinian ambassador to the UN, welcomed the statement. He told reporters, “We are very happy that there was a very strong united message from the Security Council against the illegal, unilateral measure” to retroactively authorize nine settlements in the occupied West Bank.