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Israel: Protests as lawmakers consider judicial reforms

February 13, 2023

Demonstrators massed outside the Israeli parliament to protest sweeping reforms to the country's judicial system. In a rare move, Israeli President Isaac Herzog warned of nearing "constitutional and social collapse."

Israelis wave national flags during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system
Protesters against the proposed changes waved Israeli flags and held aloft banners outside Israel's parliament in JerusalemImage: Ohad Zwigenberg/AP Photo/picture alliance

Thousands of Israelis gathered on Monday to demonstrate against plans by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the country's judicial system.

The government says the planned reforms, which are also facing opposition in parliament, are needed to prevent judicial overreach.

What we know so far

At least 70,000 people took part in the demonstration in Jerusalem outside Israel's parliament, the Knesset, the Haaretz newspaper reported, citing police. Other Israeli media outlets reported that 90,000 people took part in the demonstrations in the city and elsewhere.

Critics say the plans could undermine democratic checks and balances by weakening the judiciary and giving expansive powers to the executive.

The reforms could give Netanyahu's government the power to override courts if they strike down future laws. They could also increase politicians' influence over the selection of judges.

Despite objections from some members, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted to send the first chapter of the plan to a first reading in the full legislature.

Yesh Atid lawmaker Ron Katz protests inside the Knesset amid debate over controversial judicial reforms backed by Israel's far-right governing coalition
Opposition lawmakers, such as those from the centrist Yesh Atid party, voiced anger over the planned judicial reformsImage: Yonatan Sindel/AFP/Getty Images

The first chapter is not expected to be brought for a vote in the full legislature on Monday, but rather later this week or early next week, The Times of Israel reported, citing the justice minister's office.

Monday's protest outside parliament follows weeks of mass demonstrations and opposition from vast swaths of Israeli society.

Disquiet at home — and abroad

On Sunday night, Israel's president Isaac Herzog took the unusual step of weighing in on the issue.

"We are on the brink of constitutional and social collapse," he said. "I feel — we all feel — that we are barely a moment away from a collision, and even from a violent collision."

The president, whose powers are largely ceremonial, urged that immediate talks between the government and the opposition take place.

"An agreement can be reached," Herzog said, offering to assist with negotiations.

Over the weekend, US President Joe Biden also weighed in on the issue, telling The New York Times: "Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained."

"The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary," he said.

Judicial changes could take time

The legislation approved by the committee will go to the full parliament for the first of three votes of approval, a process that is expected to take several months.

Netanyahu has previously expressed that he is determined to press ahead with the changes, despite opposition. Amid mass protests, he said Monday that his political rivals are "deliberately dragging the country into anarchy."

The first chapter of the judicial reforms would give the government more power over the appointment of judges.

Under the current system, appointments are made by a committee that includes lawyers, lawmakers, and judges.

A second chapter being introduced this week aims to take away the Supreme Court's authority to review "Basic Laws," which serve as a sort of constitution, that are approved by parliament.

Another proposal would give parliament the power to overturn decisions by the Supreme Court.

The government introduced the plans in January. Critics argue it could significantly weaken the Supreme Court, upending Israel's system of checks and balances.

They also accuse Netanyahu of seeking greater control over the court system, even as he himself is being tried on corruption charges.

Former Defense Minister Benny Gantz said opposition party leaders are sticking together "against the targeted assassination of democracy."

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, insists the reforms are aimed at restoring the balance between Israeli authorities.

rc, lo/rs (AP, dpa, Reuters, AFP)