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Israel's judicial reform and what it means for the country

David Ehl
July 24, 2023

The Israeli parliament has passed a crucial element of the government's controversial judicial reform which could change the balance of power and further divide Israeli society.

Police officers use water cannons to evacuate protesters from a main road on July 24, 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel.
Police officers used water cannons to evacuate protestors against the reforms in JerusalemImage: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Despite massive public opposition over the last few months, the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, has now passed another core element of the reform.

What is the reform about?

Israel's most right-wing and religious coalition government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to reset several aspects of the separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary.

As Israel doesn't have a constitution, the interaction of these institutions is regulated by individual laws.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu's government is seen as very conservative and nationalistImage: Maya Alleruzzo/AP/picture alliance

Traditionally, Israel's Supreme Court has had a relatively strong position as there is no second chamber in parliament that can keep Knesset legislation in check.

The main focus right now is on the so-called reasonableness clause. Until now, the Supreme Court has been able to declare government decisions as "inappropriate" and, therefore, make them null and void.

Netanyahu's government wanted to put an end to this clause.

Following a first vote in mid-July, Monday's decisive vote saw all 64 government voting in favor, out of a total of 120 Knesset members. 

The next step of the judicial reform is due to be voted on in the Knesset as early as autumn: if passed, it would give the government more powers over judicial appointments. 

Over recent months, however, Netanyahu has indicated that he might be willing to partially concede in this area.

What do those in favor argue?

Unlike the 120 members of the Knesset, judges are not directly elected by the people. That is why the government and its supporters argue that their proposed judicial reform would strengthen Israeli democracy.

From their point of view, the judiciary has too much power and the proposed reform would in fact improve the balance between institutions.

Recently, supporters of the reform have also taken to the streets. According to media reports, around 50,000 participants were counted in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening, including many residents from other parts of the country and settlers from the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Itamar Ben-Gvir
Israeli Minister for National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir is a staunch supporter of the reformImage: EyalWarshavsky/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

The judicial reform is being pushed primarily by nationalist and religious parties in the governing coalition.

The far-right minister for national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently declared that his party "Jewish Strength" would reject "any softening" of the draft law as "castration." He called on the coalition to pass the law in its current form and to move forward with the next parts of the reform.

What is the criticism?

For critics of the reform, however, the government is planning nothing less than the "destruction of democracy" — a slogan visible on many posters and banners.

Protesters have also drawn comparisons with Poland and Hungary, whose respective governments are also accused of trying to restructure the judiciary.

The two countries are often considered problematic in the European Union with regard to rule of law and separation of powers, and both are facing several infringement procedures.

Critics argue that judicial reform in Israel could divide society even further: in the past, the Supreme Court has repeatedly defended values such as gender equality and the protection of sexual minorities against strict religious restrictions.

Many Israelis who consider themselves as secular, left-wing or liberal, fear the restructuring would strengthen the ultra-Orthodox wing.

Protester with an 'I love democracy' banner
Protesters have been taking to the streets for monthsImage: Amir Cohen/REUTERS

The issue has even reached the army, where mandatory service for men and women is seen as promoting a melting pot and acting as a social glue. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from this service, which the Supreme Court has repeatedly declared discriminatory. 

Over the weekend, more than 1,000 Israeli Air Force reservists threatened to quit their voluntary service if the judicial reform were passed. "We all have a collective responsibility for overcoming deep divisions, polarization and rifts among the people," they said in a joint statement.

The statement was also backed by members of numerous other units, including reservists from the domestic and foreign intelligence services Shin Bet and Mossad.

What's next?

Authorities are preparing for more protests: According to the police, officers were preparing in case they had to prevent protesters from entering the Knesset.

Civil society groups such as the "Movement for Quality Government" said right after the vote that they would take the revised adequacy clause to the Supreme Court. Judges will then have to check whether their own partial disempowerment is constitutional.

If they were to block the reform, Israel would probably find itself on the brink of a national crisis. To avert this, the government would likely have to withdraw the reform — a scenario that many observers expect would lead to the collapse of the coalition.

This article was originally published in German.

Israeli Knesset passes judiciary changes