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Israel: controversial judicial overhaul expected to pass first hearing in Knesset

July 10, 2023 at 3:29 pm

People gather in front of the parliament building (Knesset) to stage a protest against proposing of 2023-24 state budget by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition, in Jerusalem on May 23, 2023 [Mostafa Alkharouf – Anadolu Agency]

The controversial bill to overhaul Israel’s judiciary is expected to advance through the first of three hearings in the Knesset — parliament — today. Knesset members will get the first opportunity to vote on the bill aimed at excluding the judiciary’s right to rule on the “reasonableness” of government decisions.

Changes to limit the power of the judiciary proposed by the far-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in January have sparked some of the biggest public protests ever seen in Israel. Netanyahu postponed the vote as a result, but the bill is now going through the procedure to become law.

According to the Time of Israel, the bill is being rushed through the legislative process in order to be finalised as law by the close of the Knesset’s summer session on 30 July. Today’s vote is the first of three required. With the far-right coalition holding a majority, the proposal is expected to clear the first reading easily.

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The protest movement has promised nationwide disruption tomorrow. This will include blocking roads and flooding Ben Gurion Airport and its internal access roads with protesters.

One of the main contentions about the bill is that limitations will be imposed on the power of the judiciary to hold elected members of the Knesset in check through the “reasonableness” test. The principle grants power to the judiciary to throw out legislation that judges consider to be unreasonable.

A Haaretz editorial warning against the bill described the reasonableness standard as one of the main tools employed by the judicial branch to restrain the power of the executive. “When we talk about the structure of democracy, about restraining government, the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, the reasonableness standard is among the most critical elements,” said the editorial. “Through it, the judicial system restrains the power of the government.”

The text of the bill completely bars courts from using the reasonableness test to invalidate or even discuss decisions made by the cabinet, ministers and “other elected officials, as set by law.” Under Israel’s unicameral system wherein there is only one parliamentary chamber, no constitutional restraint on government policy will remain if the bill becomes law.

Such an eventuality is likely to be disastrous for advocates of Israel in the West, who have long championed the idea that the apartheid state is a democracy. Israel’s unicameral system combined with a bill which will strip judges of the power of oversight will empower the far-right in the country. Right-wing extremists are predicted to dominate Israeli politics for the foreseeable future due to their growing number and popular rhetoric.

Despite having the power to throw out government policy, Israel’s judiciary has never exercised its power to prevent any governments from annexing Palestinian territory in violation of international law, and building illegal settlements for Jews only.

In June, Netanyahu said that he had dropped controversial parts of the bill. According to Haaretz, though, this was a “lie”.

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