Judicial Reforms Spark Massive Protests in Israel

The reforms would give the Israeli Legislature more control over the judiciary in terms of appointments and powers, and limit the scope of judicial review.

Reforms

Tel Aviv:  Mass protests erupted across Israel on 7th January 2023, with demonstrators taking to the streets in Tel Aviv and other cities. The protests were in response to proposed judicial reforms that many see as a step toward authoritarianism in Israel. These reforms would limit the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court, undoing the 1992 Constitutional Reforms of Aharon Barak. The reforms would give the Israeli Legislature more control over the judiciary in terms of appointments and powers, and limit the scope of judicial review.

The proposed reforms have been met with widespread opposition, with over 150 people arrested in the protests so far. The opposition has come from many sectors, ranging from right to left. There are many voices from within the establishment who have opposed the reforms, with members of the administration and armed forces seeing it as an end to the rule of law. Opposition members have called it a blow to Israeli democracy, and from across the political spectrum, there is opposition to the reforms. The protests and the scope of the reforms have also led to financial insecurity.

Palestinian voices have mostly stayed away from the protests, as many see the difference between the so-called draconian reforms and the so-called liberal democracy as negligible. 

Kestenbaum doctrine

The reforms are a rollback of the so-called 1992 Constitutional Revolution. The 1992 Constitutional Revolution, led by Supreme Court judge Aharon Barak, developed the Kestenbaum doctrine where human rights principles would be guiding principles in private law. However, this has been criticized as giving too much power to the judge, introducing legal uncertainty. As the judge becomes important, it creates a system where legal cases are judged based on the individual’s understanding and interpretation of the law, creating legal uncertainty. The proposed reforms would seek to limit this power, but critics argue that this would be a step backward for democracy. The reforms came at a time when Israel struggled to maintain a stable government. The reforms were intended to consolidate power across many wings of government

The Israeli government has been unstable since 2018, with less than four years seeing five snap elections. No party has been able to hold a majority, and many conservative parties in Israel have problems with Netanyahu as there are many types of conservatism in Israel.

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Corruption

In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on fraud and corruption charges, taking a plea deal in 2020. He lost power in 2021, but in December 2022, he was able to form a coalition and return as Prime Minister of Israel. This new coalition promises to expand the role of religion in public life.

Netanyahu still faces a number of corruption charges. The reforms would allow Netanyahu to receive donations for his legal case in fighting off those charges.

Netanyahu’s government said that it was keen on passing these reforms to give his government more stability.  The reforms were announced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who was appointed by the most recent government. On 4th January, he announced his plans for reforms, which triggered the current protests. The proposed reforms have been met with widespread criticism and opposition, with over 150 people arrested in the protests so far.

Protests Against Reforms: Left Right, and Center

The protests have a strong presence of members of the Israeli military, they have not engaged with the concerns of the Palestinians. Palestinian voices have mostly stayed away from the protests, as many see the difference between the so-called draconian reforms and the so-called liberal democracy as negligible. Israel courts have always ruled to the detriment of the Palestinians, and the current reform only seeks to streamline the process of human rights violations in the region.

The protests have been going strong, with many roads blocked in the month of March, and lakhs of Israelis participating in the protests. There is a lot of international support for the protests, as many international observers see these reforms as an end to the checks and balances system, which is important for any democracy. Many countries’ leaders have expressed concern about the direction of Israeli democracy. The reforms have been seen as a threat to the rule of law and democratic institutions, and many have called on the Israeli government to reconsider its position.

The protests in Israel reflect a larger trend of democratic backsliding around the world. The erosion of democratic norms and institutions is a global phenomenon, and Israel is just one example of this trend. The rise of authoritarian leaders and populist movements, coupled with the weakening of democratic institutions, has created a dangerous situation in many countries. The erosion of democratic norms and institutions is a threat to global peace and stability, and it is imperative that we take action to protect democracy around the world.

Need for reform, but not this way

Opinion polls show that most Israelis are frustrated with the current judicial system and want reforms. At the same time, most Israelis oppose the current set of reforms. As opposition to the reforms is coming from different corners, it is unclear what kind of reforms most people want. In Israel, there is strong support for centralization and a greater role of Judaism in public life. Without concern for democratic principles, the will of the Israeli people will keep floundering. The Israeli state, with the strong presence of religion and the military, will always run counter to the democratic spirit.

The author is a mathematician and a political observer based in Bangalore. Views expressed are personal. 

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May 2024
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