Did massive protests just change the course of Israeli history? This past Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that his government would delay voting on the controversial judicial reform plan that has torn Israeli society apart.
The announcement came after 12 weeks of demonstrations against the reforms and a general strike by the country’s top labor federation last Monday, which resulted in the closure of Ben-Gurion Airport and large parts of the economy.
The Knesset had been scheduled to vote on a key part of the legislation — which would give the ruling coalition control over appointing judges — this past week. So, why did Bibi press pause on the legislative process?
Here’s what happened. Last Sunday, the day before he made the announcement, Netanyahu fired his defense minister and fellow Likud member, Yoav Gallant, for warning about the harm the plan would cause to national security.
In a televised address to the nation, Gallant had urged the premier to pause the legislation, saying in no uncertain terms:
“I see the source of our strength eroding. The growing rift in our society is penetrating the IDF and security agencies. This poses a clear, immediate, and tangible threat to the security of the state. I will not lend my hand to this.”
Gallant was referring to the hundreds of reserve air force pilots and other officers who have vowed that they will not show up for duty if the judicial reforms are enacted. Some have also skipped flight trainings in protest of the government’s plan.
In the latest development, according to Israeli media, Gallant is reportedly likely to retain his job, but only after he publicly apologizes to Netanyahu, leaving the defense minister in limbo in his role.
Immediately following Gallant’s planned dismissal, across the country, massive crowds of Israelis spontaneously poured into the streets.
The protesters blocked a major highway in Tel Aviv and other roads and bridges, and lit bonfires in the streets, while waving Israeli flags and chanting, “Democracy!” and “We are not afraid!” Mounted police fired water canons into the crowds to disperse them.
Following these protests and the general labor strike, Netanyahu announced the break in the legislative process, which he said would last until the end of the Knesset recess on April 30.
This week, we’ll break down the basics of what you need to know. Plus: what happens next? For answers to all of your burning questions about the reforms, check out our updated Q&A. You can also watch our latest video on the reforms below (and check out part one here).
What are the judicial reforms?
There are three main parts of the government’s judicial reform plan: the override clause, removing the “reasonability test,” and changes to how judges are appointed. Let’s briefly go through them.
First, the reforms would introduce an “override clause” which would significantly limit the Court’s power of judicial review.
Currently, the Supreme Court can strike down any law it finds to be unconstitutional — even though Israel doesn’t have a constitution but instead has semi-constitutional Basic Laws.
With the reforms, the Knesset could override the Supreme Court’s decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of the 120-seat Knesset.
Second, the Supreme Court would no longer be able to make decisions on the grounds of “reasonability.” The court just used this in January when it ruled that the appointment of Aryeh Deri as a government minister was “highly unreasonable” due to his past criminal convictions.
Proponents of the reforms claim that “reasonability” is a vague metric that gives the court too much judicial leeway. The other side says that some sort of standard is necessary to allow the court to overrule laws or decisions that are corrupt or problematic.
Third, the legislation would give the government effective control over appointing judges. Currently, judges are chosen by a committee of nine members, including three Supreme Court judges, two Israel Bar Association representatives, and four ministers and Knesset members.
Under the reforms, the two Bar Association representatives would be replaced by two “public representatives” chosen by the justice minister. This would give the sitting government a majority of the votes for selecting judges.
What are the best arguments for and against the plan?
Both sides have extremely strong opinions about this proposal. However, several polls have found that a majority of Israelis oppose the legislation, including close to half of those who voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party.
So, what are the best arguments of the different sides? Opponents of the reform argue that, by dramatically weakening the Supreme Court, the legislation would shift all the power to the Knesset and the ruling coalition of the day.
This would leave the government without checks and balances, raising concerns about a “tyranny of the majority,” they argue.
Proponents of the reform say that the Supreme Court has grown overly powerful and has intervened inappropriately in the Knesset’s lawmaking authority, without any statutory authority to do so. They argue that power should be shifted back to the democratically-elected Knesset.
Others advocate a middle position, saying that the judiciary needs reform, but that the current proposal goes too far. Retired Supreme Court justice Hila Gerstel expressed this view, saying at a recent rally in Tel Aviv that she supports “repairs” to the judiciary but not its “destruction.”
What happens next?
Despite Netanyahu calling a time-out, the crisis is far from over. On Monday evening, right after the prime minister’s announcement, thousands of protesters in favor of the reforms gathered near the Supreme Court.
They held signs reading “leftist traitors,” “I am a second-class citizen,” and “They’re stealing the election from us,” The Jerusalem Post reported.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir shared an advertisement for the pro-reform protests on social media, writing, “Today we stop being silent. Today is the day the Right wakes up. Share it forward.”
Meanwhile, the anti-overhaul protests continued on Saturday night with over 160,000 Israelis rallying in Tel Aviv for the 13th consecutive week. Protest organizers have said the demonstrations will continue until the overhaul plan has been shelved.
Former Israeli Prime Minister and opposition leader Yair Lapid attended the protests, tweeting: “We are on our guard. The danger has not passed.”
President Isaac Herzog began holding compromise talks this week between the two sides, but so far, they have not been fruitful, according to senior officials involved.
After a meeting at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Friday, senior officials involved told Channel 12 News that the negotiations are already dead in the water.
The coalition insists that it control the selection of judges, which is a non-starter for the opposition, blocking any possible path forward.
Those who oppose the overhaul are concerned that Netanyahu’s temporary pausing of the legislation is merely a delaying tactic to pass the measures in a gradual way.
The protest organizers likened the current situation to Poland in 2017, when Polish President Andrzej Duda silenced dissent by vetoing a similar proposal and calling for national unity, before enacting almost identical legislation later on.
“Just like in Poland, the government is taking time to reorganize in order to pass the judicial coup,” the protest leaders said in a statement.
Amid all the political unrest, earlier this week, Channel 12 and the Kan public broadcaster “both released polls that found the ruling coalition would lose its majority if elections were held today,” The Times of Israel reported.
An array of parties in the opposition, led by Benny Gantz’s National Unity party, could form a coalition, the polls found.
Also, in a separate Channel 12 survey released Friday, most Israelis (67%) said that Netanyahu should not fire Gallant, while only 17% said he should. Even among supporters of Netanyahu’s coalition, a majority (57%) said he should not fire the defense minister.
Finally, 61% of respondents said they do not believe Netanyahu is open to true dialogue on the judicial shakeup plans, while 29% think he’s being genuine, according to the poll.
How should we interpret this moment?
How should we interpret the judicial reform crisis and this moment in history? Will we predict a doomsday scenario, saying “this is the end of the Jewish state and democratic state as we know it,” or view this as an inflection point?
According to psychologists quoted in this article, there are three types of narratives that we can tell about our family or community’s history:
The ascending narrative describes a rags-to-riches story. “We started from the bottom and now we’re at the top.”
The descending narrative starts out positively and ends negatively. “We had everything and then we lost everything.”
The oscillating narrative, which is the one found to breed the most resilient families, goes something like this: “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. But we also had setbacks. No matter what, we stuck together as a family.”
So, which narrative will we use now? The story of Israel is an oscillating narrative. It includes moments of triumph and euphoria, like the Six-Day War, and moments of challenges and struggle, like the First Lebanon War.
There was also the Altalena affair in 1948, the debate over whether to accept German reparations in 1952, Israel’s disengagement from Yamit in 1982 and Gush Katif in 2005, and the controversial Oslo Accords that led to the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
In each of these cases, people also said that it was the end of Israel, but it was all part of the oscillating narrative. The question is: what story will we tell about this moment? And what could we learn from the past to help us overcome this one?
One important principle we can learn from the past is a slogan coined in 1944 by future Prime Minister Menachem Begin: “Milchemet achim l’olam lo,” “There will never be a civil war,” “There will never be a war between brothers and sisters.”
Anything is worth a compromise to build a consensus and avert civil war. Let’s hope that Israel tiptoes back from the brink and that cooler heads prevail. Let’s hope that this delay leads to real negotiation and compromise, and that Israel’s democracy emerges stronger than ever before.
Originally Published Apr 2, 2023 12:31PM EDT