Briefing

Why are Netanyahu's judicial reforms so controversial?

Opponents have warned the government's suggested reforms could be the end of democracy in Israel

There have been mass protests in Israel over a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the country's judiciary system. Opponents have warned these reforms could be the end of democracy in Israel, and on March 25, Yoav Gallant, Israel's defense minister, became the first senior member of the ruling Likud party to say the plan should be paused; in response, Netanyahu fired him, sparking an estimated 150 demonstrations across Israel, finally prompting Netanyahu to delay the reforms. Here's everything you need to know: 

What is Netanyahu's plan? 

Netanyahu, who returned to office for the third time at the end of 2022, is at the center of an ongoing corruption trial, and facing bribery, fraud, and breach of trust charges; he has denied the accusations. He is leading Israel's most far-right government in decades, with his cabinet announcing a series of proposals to reform parts of the Israeli parliament, or the Knesset, the most notable of which is a plan to give nearly unlimited powers to Netanyahu's own government by weakening the country's judicial system. 

The key aspect of this proposal, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports, is a "plan to pass an 'override clause' that would allow the smallest possible majority in the Knesset to overrule decisions by the Supreme Court." This would be a key change, Haaretz notes, because Israel, unlike most democracies, does not actually have a written constitution

As a result, "the separation between the legislative and executive branches is very weak as the government almost always holds a majority in the Knesset," meaning the Supreme Court is typically the only Israeli institution that can limit governmental powers. But Netanyahu's proposed reforms would mean that a simple 61-vote majority in the Knesset could trump any ruling by the court.  

"The judicial reforms proposed ... will rebalance all power into the executive branch, and give whichever political wing is in control of the government inordinate power over its political rivals," The Jerusalem Post reports. Indeed, the "rebalancing of power created by the reform is actually the unbalancing of a sensitive system that already has few checks in place."

Why are people so angry about the plan? 

Many opponents feel that Netanyahu's plan would have disastrous effects on Israeli democracy. The reforms "could open the door to previously unimaginable possibilities in Israel's democratic order," Haaretz writes, citing possibilities like the shuttering of newspapers, the reconstitution of discriminatory laws, and the implementation of election rules that benefit one party over another. 

"The proposed changes to selection are a real threat to the independence of the judiciary in Israel," Prof. Suzie Navot, a scholar at the Israel Democracy Institute, wrote in Fathom. "It is very problematic for Israel because the Supreme Court is the only branch — the last branch — with the power to limit government."

There are also many who believe that Netanyahu "cares less about healing the country than avoiding prosecution, and hopes the prospect of handpicked judges will help him turn aside the corruption charges that have dogged him for years — and that he is still fighting in a Jerusalem court," The Washington Post's Steve Hendrix writes.

In response to the proposals, thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest. On Feb. 13, an estimated 100,000 people gathered outside the Knesset in Jerusalem in an effort to sway Netanyahu from enacting his reforms. The massive crowd chanted "Democracy!" as it made its way through the Israeli capital. Protesters included Yair Lapid, the country's previous prime minister and current leader of the opposition, who joined the masses in front of the Knesset. 

Netanyahu initially dismissed the protesters, saying that the people who voted for his government "knew about the intention to enact a comprehensive reform of the judicial system." He added that his cabinet would "make the necessary changes in the judicial system, prudently and responsibly." However, following a phone call with President Biden, Netanyahu's government announced a slight softening of the proposed reforms, with CNN reporting the concessions "would give Israeli governments less power to select new judges — but still more power than it has now." Israeli officials also said that they would delay additional aspects of the reform vote in the Knesset.

Have any government officials spoken out against the plan?

Yes. While delivering a speech on March 25, Israel's defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said the judicial overhaul needed to be halted "for the security of Israel." He cited the fact that Israel Defense Force reservists have said they will not participate in training, and military members have been joining protests. On March 26, Netanyahu dismissed Gallant. After his firing was announced, demonstrations began springing up across Israel, with protesters in Tel Aviv starting bonfires and blocking roadways.

As tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets, several members of the Likud party began making public statements calling for the plan to be dropped or at least altered. "When the house is on fire, you don't ask who is right, but pour water and save its occupants," Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar tweeted. "If the prime minister decides to stop the legislation in order to prevent the rift created in the nation, we must support his position." Economy Minister Nir Barkat said Netanyahu could "stop and recalculate" the plan, saying the reforms are "necessary and we will do it, but not at the cost of a civil war."

How likely is it that Netanyahu's reforms will be enacted? 

Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who at the start of the protests said his country was on the brink of "societal and constitutional collapse," had an urgent message on March 27 following Gallant's firing, calling on Netanyahu to stop the overhaul at once. "The entire nation is rapt with deep worry," he said. "Our security, economy, society — all are under threat. Wake up now!"

Amidst the ongoing protests and massive uproar that has besieged Israel, Netanyahu seems to have finally given in to public demands and delayed any further legislation. Israel's far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced that he had reached a preliminary deal with Netanyahu to pause the judicial overhaul process until the end of April, when parliament resumes for its summer session. The delay gives the Knesset time to reach a more reasonable consensus on the reforms, though if no agreement is reached, Ben-Gvir said the legislation will be unilaterally passed when the Knesset reconvenes, Axios notes. 

This marks a sudden change in the process, as before Gallant was dismissed, it seemed fairly likely that the laws would be enacted as is, with the initial round of reforms, set up in a series of bills, passing a preliminary committee vote in late February. It was pushed through the Knesset even as lawmakers were seen arguing and getting into semi-physical altercations before the protests had even begun, CNN reports. Netanyahu's pause now puts the question of the reforms into further jeopardy. 

March 27, 2023: This piece has been updated throughout to reflect ongoing developments.

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