Israel’s parliament passes law limiting Supreme Court’s power, sparking mass protests
Israel’s Parliament approved divisive legislation Monday that remakes part of the country’s justice system, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was released from the hospital after having a pacemaker fitted.
The law weakens Supreme Court oversight of the government, a move that critics claim will erode Israel’s democracy and threatens the secular character of its state institutions. It was approved despite months of protests, the biggest in Israel’s history, that have engulfed the nation’s military, business and legal communities.
Opposition lawmakers, who boycotted the vote, shouted “shame” as the “reasonableness” bill was approved.
The judicial overhaul has divided Israel, testing the fragile social ties that bind the country, rattling the cohesion of its powerful military and repeatedly drawing concern from its closest ally, the United States. It is being driven by Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which is made up of ultranationalist and ultra-religious parties. They argue the reforms are necessary so that their rights and interests are protected.
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Early Monday, protesters blocked a road leading to the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. Police used water cannons to push them back. Businesses across the country shuttered their doors in protest of the vote. The vote passed despite a warning from Israel’s President Isaac Herzog Monday that Israel was in a “state of national emergency.”
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Netanyahu’s sudden hospitalization over the weekend for the implant of a pacemaker added another twist to an already dramatic series of events. Netanyahu’s doctors said Sunday the procedure had gone smoothly. In a short video statement from the hospital late Sunday, Netanyahu, 73, said he felt fine and thanked his doctors for his treatment and the public for wishing him well. He said he planned to vote Monday on the reforms.
“I want you to know that tomorrow morning I’m joining my colleagues at the Knesset,” he said in the video.
Last week, the Israeli prime minister was diagnosed with dehydration after he was rushed to the hospital after having experienced mild dizziness. Netanyahu paused the overhaul in March after intense pressure by protesters and labor strikes that halted outgoing flights and shut down parts of the economy.
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In Monday’s vote, legislators decided on a measure to prevent judges from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are “unreasonable.” Proponents say the current standard gives judges excessive powers over decision-making by elected officials. Critics say removing it would allow the government to pass arbitrary decisions, make improper appointments or firings and open the door to corruption.
The overhaul is one part of sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of Israel’s judiciary, from limiting the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions to changing the way judges are selected.
Netanyahu and his far-right allies say the changes are needed to curb the powers of unelected judges. Their opponents, coming largely from Israel’s professional middle class, say the plan will destroy the country’s fragile system of checks and balances and push Israel toward authoritarian rule.
“This legislation is destroying the common foundations of Israeli society, ripping the people apart, dismantling the army and inflicting fatal harm to Israel’s security,” three former army chiefs of staff and dozens of senior Israeli security officials wrote in a signed letter on Saturday criticizing the government’s judicial reforms.
Some reservists have said they will not serve if the legislation goes ahead.
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What the U.S. is saying about Israel’s proposed reforms
Israel is the recipient of the largest amount of U.S. overseas military aid, about $160 billion cumulatively since the country’s creation in 1948, according to the Congressional Research Service.
This money has helped transform Israel’s military into one of the most sophisticated fighting forces in the world. Washington has long viewed Israel as a counterweight against extremist groups and countries in the Middle East, from Iran to Syria, and the two countries cooperate closely on intelligence and technology research.
The events are being watched closely in Washington, from where the Biden administration has frequently spoken out against Netanyahu’s government and its overhaul plan.
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“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this − the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus,” President Joe Biden said in a statement to the news site Axios late Sunday.
In a Monday statement the White House said it was “unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority,” a reference to the opposition boycott that enabled it to pass in the Knesset with 64 votes in favor and zero against it.
What happens next in Israel?
Several issues may be be pivotal in determining what happens next, said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer of the Israel Policy Forum, which analyzes Israeli and Palestinian issues.
One is whether the Supreme Court strikes down the law, setting up a deepening clash between branches of government. Also critical will be whether supporters succeed in pushing for more judicial limits in the near term, instead of pausing their efforts.
Also key: whether 10,000 military reservists who vowed not to show up for duty if the law passed actually do so − and if more join in protesting a law that has drawn large demonstrations and business closures.
“I think there were probably a fair number of reservists holding off to see if this would pass or not. And now that it has passed, I think that there’s probably going to be a much more widespread movement of people who say that they are no longer showing up for reserve duty,” Koplow said.
He said that how the debate plays out from here carries big stakes for Israel’s national security, its economy and its perceived image as “an island of stability in the Middle East.”
“I think that there’s a chance that this puts all of those things at risk,” he said.
Anat Alon-Beck, an Israeli-born law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said she fears “dark times” ahead for the country of her birth.