What you need to know about Israel’s judicial reforms

A plan by Netanyahu’s government to weaken the Supreme Court has triggered weeks of mass protests.

Demonstrators block a road during a protest against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
The proposed judicial changes have triggered weeks of mass protests [Amir Cohen/Reuters]

Israelis have continued demonstrations, including outside the country’s parliament, to protest against legislative steps towards enacting judicial changes proposed by the hard-right coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The plan has triggered weeks of mass protests, prompted condemnation from wide swaths of Israeli society and drawn a statement of concern from US President Joe Biden.

Netanyahu has been formally barred from involvement in the initiative because he is facing criminal corruption charges, which he denies.

Here is what you need to know about the proposed changes:

What are the proposed changes?

The Israeli government is set to vote on Monday on the first reading of the controversial amendment to overhaul the country’s legal system, which has prompted unprecedented anti-government protests.

The government has been pushing for changes that would limit the Supreme Court’s powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, giving the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) the power to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes out of the 120-seat Knesset.

A second proposal would take away the Supreme Court’s authority to review the legality of Israel’s Basic Laws, which function as the country’s constitution. Protesters fear the legal reforms may diminish the checks and balances within the Israeli state.

The reforms would also change how Supreme Court justices are selected, giving politicians decisive powers in appointing judges.

The independent panel for selecting judges currently requires politicians and judges who sit on it to agree on appointments. The present proposal would change that, giving the government far more sway.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties in the coalition want to pass a law exempting their community from conscription in the military, which they worry may be struck down by the court if its powers are not cut back.

What are the risks?

The reform would weaken the Supreme Court and give the Netanyahu-dominated Knesset effective control over judicial appointments.

Critics fear Netanyahu wants to leverage the judicial push to freeze or cancel his trial, which he has denied.

Opponents say the proposal would push Israel towards a system like Hungary and Poland in which the leader wields control over all major levers of power.

The opposition also says Netanyahu’s nationalist allies want to weaken the Supreme Court to establish more settlements on land the Palestinians seek for a state. But settlements, which are considered illegal under international laws, have continued under successive Israeli governments. Nearly 600,000-750,000 Israelis now live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Palestinians however, say the discriminatory laws against them continue to be passed. Last week, Israel passed a new law that will make it easier for authorities to revoke the citizenship and residency of Palestinians in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s new far-right government has also intensified deadly raids in Palestinian territories, killing at least 50 Palestinians, including 11 children, so far this year.

What’s next?

Netanyahu has pressed ahead with his agenda despite a call by Israel’s President Isaac Herzog on Sunday to freeze the legislation and begin a dialogue with the opposition.

Some of the coalition’s proposed changes now sit with the Knesset’s plenum (authoritative body), where they await a first reading of three needed to be written into law. The schedule has not yet been set. Other changes are still being discussed.

Herzog, whose role is largely ceremonial, has outlined a five-point plan as a platform for discussions.

Opposition leaders have said they will not talk before legislation is halted. Justice minister Yariv Levin has said he was open to discussion but not to stopping the legislation.

Commenting on the proposed reforms, US President Biden told The New York Times on Saturday that “building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained”.

Netanyahu and his supporters say the changes are needed to rein in a judiciary that wields too much power.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies