Judicial reform plan update: What is going on in Israel?

After three months of protests and a general labor strike, Netanyahu said he was allowing a "delay" in voting on the plan.
Protesters wave Israeli flags during a rally against the government's judicial reforms outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem, on March 27, 2023. (Photo by Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images)

Click here for answers to your burning questions about the judicial reforms.

On Monday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he was suspending his government’s highly controversial plan to overhaul the judicial system, which has divided Israeli society since it was announced in early January.

After 12 weeks of massive demonstrations throughout the country — including the announcement of a general strike by the country’s top labor federation, which resulted in the closure of Ben-Gurion Airport and large parts of the economy — Netanyahu said that he was allowing a “delay” to allow for “a real opportunity for dialogue.”

But he also pledged his government would eventually pass legislation to “return the balance that was lost between the [government] branches,” while “safeguarding and even strengthening individual rights,” the prime minister pledged.

“One thing I am not willing to accept — there are a minority of extremists that are willing to tear our country to shreds…escorting us to civil war and calling for refusal of army service, which is a terrible crime,” he added.

Parts of the military have joined the protests, refusing to show up for reserve duty or vowing not to serve if the plan goes through. Read more about the protests, and answers to all of your burning questions about the reforms, here.

The prime minister noted that the country was on a “dangerous path” and said he was pausing the reform to prevent a civil war. He said the break would last until the end of the Knesset recess on April 30.

Why is this happening now?

The tension over the judicial reform, which has been building for months, escalated even more on Sunday when Netanyahu announced he was firing his defense minister Yoav Gallant, a day after the Likud member urged the premier to pause the legislation, warning in a televised speech:

“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.”

The Knesset had been scheduled to vote on a key part of the legislation, which would give the ruling coalition control over appointing judges, in the coming days.

Following Gallant’s dismissal, massive crowds spontaneously poured into the streets, across the country, blocking a major highway in Tel Aviv as well as other streets and bridges, and lighting bonfires on the roads, while waving Israeli flags and chanting, “Democracy!” and “We are not afraid!” Mounted police fired water canons into the crowd to disperse them.

In Jerusalem, protesters broke through barriers near Netanyahu’s home, calling for him to resign, and were also hit by water canons. The protests continued on Monday.

What is the judicial reform crisis all about?

Israel’s judicial reforms have four parts: the override clause, removing the “reasonability test,” appointing judges, and legal advisers. Read our breakdown below or watch our explainer video at Today Unpacked.

The government’s plan would weaken Israel’s Supreme Court by significantly limiting its power to review laws and strike them down, among other changes.

When he announced the reforms in early January, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said that the Supreme Court’s “growing intervention…in cabinet decisions and Knesset legislation” had ruined public trust in the legal system, leading to “severe damage to democracy.”

“We go to the polls, vote, elect, and time after time, people we didn’t elect choose for us,” Levin said. “Many sectors of the public look to the judicial system and do not find their voices heard.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed that he received a mandate in November’s election to enact the controversial reforms, despite polls showing that the majority of Israelis oppose the legislation.

Here are the components of the government’s reform plan:

Override clause:

The Knesset would be able to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of the 120-seat Knesset. 

Currently, the Supreme Court can strike down any law it finds to be unconstitutional. With this change, the Knesset could overrule that decision and pass the law with the smallest majority. 

Test of reasonability:

The Supreme Court would no longer be able to judge Knesset legislation, appointments or other government decisions on the grounds of “reasonability.” 

The Supreme Court employed this standard just this past week when it ruled that Netanyahu’s appointment of Aryeh Deri as a minister was “highly unreasonable” due to his past criminal convictions, most recently in January 2022.

Another example, as Haaretz reports, was in 2007 when the Supreme Court ruled that the government’s decision not to reinforce classrooms in Sderot against missile attacks was “unreasonable,” as it took too long for students to run to a bomb shelter. The court ordered then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to immediately reinforce the schools. 

Appointing judges:

The reforms would also change how Supreme Court justices are selected and give the ruling coalition effective control of appointing them. 

Currently, judges are chosen by a committee of nine members: three Supreme Court judges (including the Supreme Court president), two representatives of the Israel Bar Association, and four members who are elected representatives (two ministers and two Knesset members).

Under the reforms, the two representatives from the Israel Bar Association 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.

Legal advisers:

The plan also includes changing the law so that government ministers would be able to appoint their own legal advisers, which is not in their authority today. The legal advisers would also lose the ability to make binding decisions, and would only be able to issue advice.

Levin said that these proposals are “the first stage” of his planned reforms and that further changes would be enacted later on.

Diversity of perspectives: Is the reform the end of Israeli democracy or necessary “rebalancing” of power?

Netanyahu has said that “the claim that this reform is the end of democracy is baseless,” insisting that the plan would actually strengthen democracy.

“The balance between the branches in the governmental system has been violated over the last two decades, and even more so in recent years,” Netanyahu argued, adding that the reforms would “restore the correct balance between the branches.”

On the other side, opposition leader Yair Lapid said that the plan is “extreme regime change” that would destroy democracy.

Meanwhile, former Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused Netanyahu and his coalition of carrying out “a constitutional coup” and undermining “the most foundational values” in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut also decried the reforms, saying they would “crush” the judicial system and deal a “fatal blow” to democracy.

Hayut rejected the government’s claim that it was acting according to the will of the majority, saying: “Anyone who claims that the majority who elected their representatives to the Knesset thereby gave them an ‘open check’ to do as they please, bears the name of democracy in vain.”

She explained that the court is tasked with protecting human rights in Israeli society, to ensure that “the rule of the majority does not turn into the tyranny of the majority.”

The reforms would take away the court’s ability to nullify laws that disproportionately harm individual rights, she explained.

In a Times of Israel op-ed, Yonatan Green, executive director of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum, argued in support of the reforms, writing that the Supreme Court has become too powerful.

“A closer look at the proposed reforms reveals a measured, justified and indeed a patently democratic response to decades of illegitimate judicial overreach,” he wrote, adding that the changes “hardly warrant a collective panic attack.”

“The real democratic deficit,” Green continued, “can be found in the past 30 years of judicial supremacy, whereby the court may ‘override’ the Israeli parliament and has final say on any matter it chooses, despite no actual constitutional anchor enabling such authority.”

But others like Amir Fuchs, senior researcher at Israel Democracy Institute, argued that the reforms would unbalance Israel’s sensitive system, which has just a few checks in place.

“[Israeli checks and balances] are weak as it is, we don’t have bicameral parliament,” he told the Jerusalem Post. “The checks and balances that we have on the power of the central regime are very weak.”

Yaniv Roznai, co-director of the Rubenstein Center for Constitutional Challenges at Reichman University, agreed that passing the reform “would result in a government that has a blank check to do what it wants…. You have no check whatsoever of the power of the coalition.”

Opponents of the reforms also say they would help Netanyahu evade conviction in his ongoing corruption trial. 

“Netanyahu is less worried about the rule of law than the court of law, where he is on trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His zeal for judicial reform apparently began in 2016 when police began investigating him for corruption,” Douglas Bloomfield of the Jerusalem Post wrote sarcastically.

An Israel Democracy Institute survey published earlier this year found that a majority of Israelis (57%) support the Supreme Court’s authority to strike down laws passed by the Knesset “if they are found to be contrary to the principles of democracy.”

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