A wave of massive demonstrations has taken Israel by storm. Tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets for weeks on end to protest against a proposed judicial reform plan put forward by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power for a sixth term after he swept to victory in the November 2022 elections. The reforms have been described as a 'constitutional ticking bomb' and 'a stain on Israeli history'.
Protesters are concerned that the judicial changes will erode democratic norms and grant too much power to the current Israeli government, which is Israel's most far-right and religious coalition to date, enabling it to overturn existing laws. They also say that this judicial reform is all about Netanyahu, who is doing everything in his power to evade conviction in his ongoing corruption trials, and may use his own government to override any Supreme Court rulings that go against him.
So what does this judicial overhaul – which has drawn the ire of Israelis from across the political spectrum, including those in high-tech, law firms and private sector companies – involve?
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The proposed reforms would:
- Allow the Knesset – Israel's parliament of 120 seats – to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes.
- Hand control of the Supreme Court justices' selection to the ruling government coalition, meaning the government will be the deciding voice in the appointment of judges.
- Lower the age of retirement for Supreme Court justices from 70 to 67: Meaning four of the 15 serving judges would be required to step aside, allowing Netanyahu's government to fill those positions with its own selections.
- Prevent the Supreme Court from conducting judicial reviews of legislation and judging government decisions on grounds of reasonability, meaning the court would lose its ability to strike down laws or appointments that are deemed 'unreasonable' by the judges.
- Enable government ministers rather than the judiciary to appoint legal advisers as well as limit their authority, meaning legal counsel would no longer be independent or objective but instead be beholden to the ministers who appointed them, and their legal advice would be a recommendation rather than legally binding.
If enacted, these reforms would be the most radical changes ever to the system of government in Israel.
Opponents of the reforms say they would enable Netanyahu's far-right government – which Former Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon called a 'dictatorship of criminals' – to seize absolute power, by granting more authority to the executive branch over the judicial.
The changes could also have a grave impact on Israeli annexation of occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank – something ministers of the sitting government have made clear they are after. After all, it was the Israeli Supreme Court that eventually halted the removal of the Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem in 2022.
Netanyahu, who is seen as a driving force behind the reforms, argues they are necessary to counteract what he sees as the excessive power of the judiciary and to restore balance between branches of government, accusing the Supreme Court of overstepping its bounds.