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Israel: Planned judicial overhaul divides the country

March 9, 2023

Israelis have been protesting a judicial overhaul planned by the country's ultranationalist government. The gap between supporters and opponents of the controversial reform is widening.

Protesters, with one holding up a placard saying, 'Israel, we have a problem'
Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest at the planned overhaul of Israel's justice system Image: Tania Krämer/DW

In Israel, thousands of people are expected to protest Thursday against government plans to overhaul the judiciary. It's the latest in a string of demonstrations held in the past two months against the judicial reform, with Thursday serving as the next "day of resistance to dictatorship”.

Beyond weekly Saturday night demonstrations in Tel Aviv, almost daily smaller protests in different cities have been fused with frequent "days of disruption," where protesters block main junctions and roads during rush hour.

In Jerusalem last week, army veterans and reservists staged a protest in front of the prime minister's office, where they chanted and waved Israeli flags. 

The fact that Benjamin Netanyahu's office is located between Israel's Parliament, the Knesset, and the nation's Supreme Court amplified the symbolism of the veterans' protest.

"It's a very special group here tonight; we are reservists who served in past wars, from the Six Day War [1967], to Yom Kippur, to Lebanon," Rami Matan, a retired army officer told DW. "We defended, fought and were willing to die for this country. Now we are here to save her [Israel] — not like in the past from a foreign enemy, but today we defend it from becoming a dictatorship."

Matan has returned to the streets after protesting in 2020-2021 against Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, the then (and now) prime minister, who was facing corruption charges in court at the time — as he still does today.

But chants of "Bibi ha beita" ("Bibi go home") from that time have now been replaced with "democratya" ("democracy"). For many here, this is something bigger than a protest against one politician.

View of Supreme Court building from above
Critics say the reform would severely curb the powers of the nation's Supreme Court Image: Tania Krämer/DW

Israel has been gripped by protests for almost two months. Tens of thousands of Israelis are voicing their opposition to a proposed overhaul of the country's legal system and the extreme haste with which these changes are being pushed through by the far-right religious government led by Netanyahu.

The controversial overhaul would severely curb the powers of the nation's Supreme Court. It would also give more power to the government to select Supreme Court judges and allow a simple parliamentary majority to override Supreme Court decisions.

From judges to high-tech workers, students, parents and anti-occupation activists, the protests have mobilized diverse segments of society. In an unprecedented move, reservist fighter pilots from the country's elite squadron threatened to refrain from reporting to reserve training in protest of the controversial overhaul. Other reservists have also penned open letters warning that they might not show up for duty.

For many Jewish Israelis, the army symbolizes a stronghold of security that ought to stay out of politics. These actions have further added to the polarization between opponents and supporters of the government's proposal.

Drastic changes to Israel's legal system

Simcha Rothman, a member of the Knesset for the far-right Religious Zionist Party, heads the legislature's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee and is considered to be one of the architects of the government's reform. Emerging from a meeting of the committee that will oversee the proposed legislation before it gets its first reading in the Knesset, he told DW: "On November 1, a lot of people went out of their homes and voted exactly on this issue. So, we need to listen to them. There are a lot of people, but it is a small minority in Israel that says this reform is not good for them." 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confers with lawmakers in the Knesset as they convene to vote on parts of the legislation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has formed an ultranationalist coalitionImage: via REUTERS

Rothman was referring to the general election in November that led to the formation of the far-right and ultra-Orthodox coalition, which holds 64 of the Knesset's 120 seats.

For many years, national religious right-wingers have attacked the Supreme Court for being too "leftist" and too powerful.

Rothman insists that what he describes as "reforms" are necessary. "We basically have a court that is unbalanced and unchecked, unlike the other entities in the government, which are checked and balanced," he said. "So we need to introduce checks and balances to the Israeli [court] system."

But critics disagree. They say the overhaul will hand the government unchecked power, override Israel's judicial independence and leave minorities unprotected.

Efrat Rayten, a member of Knesset for the Labor party, sits on the opposition bench. "We don't have a constitution in the State of Israel, and we also do not have a Declaration of Human Rights, we do not have two houses in the parliament, we do not even have term limits for prime ministers," Rayten said in an interview with DW. "The laws brought [to the Knesset] cancel the ability of the Supreme Court to oversee the Knesset and government actions."

 Protesters in Jerusalem, one with a placard saying, 'Israeli democracy is being hijacked'
Protesters are angry, above all at the government's haste in trying to push through the legislationImage: Tania Krämer/DW

Dialogue or constitutional crisis?

In recent days, reports in Israeli media emerged saying that President Isaac Herzog was working with a group of legal academics on a compromise proposal for judicial reform.

Herzog, who as president holds a largely ceremonial role, made a rare address to the nation a few weeks ago. He pleaded for dialogue and warned that the country risked slipping into constitutional collapse. Shortly afterwards, Prime Minister Netanyahu's ruling coalition said it was open to a brokered compromise. But it rejected the opposition's demand that in order to start such a dialogue, it must stop its blitz to pass the legislation.

It is this hasty process by the ruling coalition that angers protesters. "I would say that a bunch of extremists just took over parliament, and they just want to pass their own laws, they don't care about us, they don't care about the public," says Noam, a 24-year-old tech worker at a rally near Netanyahu's residence in Jerusalem.

While some shout the slogan of "democratya", another protester, Hillel Levi-Favr, has a different concern. "We want to remind people here with all the flags, that democracy now is only for Jews, and that unless we include the Palestinians, it won't succeed." 

Next to him, Hamutal Ben Arieh says she is most worried about the widening rift in society. "This is a sanctuary for Jewish people who came here from all over the world, this is the only place we have, and now Jewish people are intimidating each other, and they are jeopardizing this democracy," says Ben Arieh.

Divisions have continued to grow over recent weeks. During a protest in Tel Aviv last week, the police, headed by far-right Minister for National Security Itamar Ben Gvir, fired tear gas and stun grenades toward protesters who were blocking a main junction.

Echoing Netanyahu, Ben Gvir called the protesters "anarchists" and promised a tough response.

As politics continue, the protests show no signs of waning. On Thursday, among other things, there is talk of an attempt to delay Prime Minister Netanyahu's planned trip to Rome to meet Italian counterpart Georgia Meloni by blocking the route to the airport.

Edited by: Timothy Jones