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israel judicial reforms

Written by Afifa Iqbal 8:42 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Published Content

Israel’s Judicial Reforms: What You Need to Know

Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election as Israel’s Prime Minister for the sixth time was followed by proposed judicial reforms that have sparked widespread protests across the country. The concerns revolve around the independence and integrity of the Israeli judiciary being curtailed. The controversy surrounding the reforms highlights the tensions between different visions of democracy in Israel, and the challenges of balancing competing interests in a polarized political climate.
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About the Author(s)
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Ms Afifa Iqbal has a keen interest in identity politics, colonialism and post-colonial development. She is currently working as a Research Assistant at ITU while pursuing her postgraduate studies in Development, Technology and Policy. She is a Gold Medalist in Political Science from the University of Punjab.

Netanyahu’s Re-election and Proposed Judicial Reforms

The judicial reforms in Israel are seen by many as an attempt by Netanyahu to defang the judiciary in an attempt to impact the proceedings of his corruption cases. In fact, in order to serve as a prime minister despite being on trial, Netanyahu had to sign a conflict of interest declaration that meant he could not be involved in judicial policy-making or propose judicial reforms.

While lambasting Prime Minister Netanyahu for ignoring the conflict of interest declaration, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara stated in an open letter to him, “…as a prime minister accused of crimes, you must refrain from taking actions that give rise to a reasonable fear of the existence of a conflict of interest between your personal interests relating to the criminal proceedings and your role as prime minister.”

Judicial Reforms

The proposed judicial reform bills aim to overhaul the judicial system and tip the balance of power in favor of the Knesset. The Knesset would be able to overturn Supreme Court decisions that declare a law unconstitutional with a simple majority vote if the proposed bills are passed.

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Additionally, under the proposed judicial reforms, the government would have authority over the appointment of judges, and ministers would not be legally required to comply with the advice of legal advisors who are under the purview of the Attorney General.

A law that has been passed already has taken away the power of the Attorney General to declare a sitting prime minister unfit for office. The passing of this law at a time when the sitting prime minister is facing a corruption trial has fueled allegations that it is designed to shield him from being declared unfit to hold office. Netanyahu, of course, denies such allegations and claims that the reform proposals aim to strengthen Israel’s democracy by following in the footsteps of other democracies like the US where the legislature has a considerable say in judicial affairs and appointment.

The reform bills have drawn the ire of large swathes of the general populace as well as policy-makers. Soon after the government announced the reforms, protests erupted all across Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Tens of thousands of protestors hoisted Israeli flags, chanted different slogans supporting democracy, and called for an end to the proposed judicial reforms seen as a threat to the democratic values of Israel.

Amidst this, Netanyahu’s decision to oust his defense minister for voicing concerns about the proposed judicial reforms added fuel to the protests. Critics have argued that the reforms would considerably weaken the courts and undermine the democratic values of the country. Many saw it as a form of a coup by the government to concentrate power within its own hands while declawing the judiciary that maintains constitutional balance within the system.

The attempt by Netanyahu to justify the proposed reforms as a step towards the democratic consolidation of Israel in line with other liberal democracies also came under fire. In an emergency conference organized by Israel Democracy Institute to highlight the problematic nature of the proposed reforms, President of Israel Democracy Institute, Yohanan Plesner, argued; “… In order to justify this hostile takeover of our judiciary, proponents of the so-called ‘reform’ claim that they are merely implementing a process that exists in other liberal democracies. But most of the references to best practices in other countries, like the ones made by the Prime Minister on Thursday, when he cited Canada, the United States and Canada, are either deeply misleading or downright false.”

However, this does not entail that the proposed reforms do not have dedicated supporters. Proponents, overwhelmingly ultranationalist right-wing factions in the government and civil society, argue that the reforms pose no harm to the democratic norms of the polity as “there is nothing wrong with the public’s representatives choosing the public’s judges”. In fact, thousands of supporters reportedly gathered in Jerusalem after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for their support.

Impact on Palestinians

There is fear among the Palestinians that the reforms would provide a legal cover to the settler-colonial violence of the Israeli state. Due to the Knesset’s historical tendency, as compared to other branches of the government, to be particularly brazen in its drive for the establishment of illegal settlements on Palestinian lands, it is not unwarranted for Palestinians to feel a sense of anxiety over the proposed reforms.

That the current Knesset, headed by the ultranationalist far-right coalition, has made no secret of its agenda to spearhead construction in all parts of Israel, including the West Bank, provides evidence that the judicial reforms would be devastating for the Palestinians. The guiding principles, published by the current government, read; “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel. The government will promote and develop the settlement of all parts of the Land of Israel — in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan and Judea and Samaria.”

While the Supreme Court has hardly been a knight in shining armor for the Palestinians, a weakened Supreme Court would only embolden the ultranationalist who are determined to pursue their agenda of illegal settlements and annexation of Palestinian lands. The mainstream international media outlets, while quick to condemn civil rights violations in any other part of the world, have repeatedly turned a blind eye towards the plight of Palestinians. The current scenario is no different. For instance, the impact of strikes and protests on the freedom of movement of Palestinians was largely ignored.

According to Tania Hary, executive director of Gisha, an Israeli NGO focused on protecting the freedom of movement of Palestinians-Erez Crossing and Allenby Crossing were closed due to general strikes.

The importance of Erez Crossing can be gauged from the information catalogued by Gisha; “Erez Crossing is the only land crossing for the movement of people between the Gaza Strip and Israel and the West Bank, as well as third countries when Rafah Crossing is closed. In recent years, Israel permitted Palestinian residents to apply to cross Erez in narrow circumstances: for business and trade, medical treatment unavailable in the Strip, and other ‘humanitarian exceptions,’ that is, visiting a dying first-degree relative, or attending a wedding or a funeral of a first-degree relative.” In a land where Palestinians are consistently oppressed, surveilled, and brutalized, even the mere act of Israelis exercising their right to protest could spell disaster for Palestinians.

Delaying the Reforms

Following the heightening protests triggered by the removal of the defense minister, Netanyahu announced to delay reforms until May. He stated; “[O]ut of national responsibility, out of a desire to prevent a rift in the nation, I have decided to suspend the second and third readings of the law in the current Knesset session in order to allow time to try and reach that broad consensus, ahead of legislation in the next Knesset session. One way or another, we will enact a reform that will restore the balance between the authorities that has been lost, by preserving – and I add, even by strengthening – individual rights.”

In his address, he adopted the tone of a concerned parent while in reality, he is anything but. His policies have wreaked havoc on Palestinians for decades. Even for Israelis who he claims to love and care about, his corruption and fraud charges tell a different tale.

Conclusion

The proposed judicial reforms in Israel have stirred up a significant amount of controversy, both domestically and internationally. While Netanyahu and his supporters argue that the reforms are necessary for strengthening democracy in Israeli politics, critics argue that they will only serve to weaken the judiciary and concentrate power within the government’s hands.

The protests and demonstrations indicate the Israelis will not accept the reforms lying down. While the decision by Netanyahu to press pause on the reforms has temporarily pacified the situation, the debate over judicial reforms in Israel is far from over. In any case, it remains to be seen how the situation will unfold come May,


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