The controversial judicial reform of the Government of Benjamin Netanyahu, against which hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been demonstrating for two months, has been approved in the first reading at dawn this Tuesday in the plenary session of the Israeli Parliament, after hours of fierce debate and with a large protest in its surroundings, in Jerusalem.
The Knesset has given the green light to a part of the proposal, which aims to weaken the power of the Supreme Court and modify the system of election of its magistrates, by 63 votes in favor, 43 against and without abstentions. The six deputies from Israel Our Home, Avigdor Lieberman’s party, have boycotted the session. The text will now return to the Constitution, Law and Justice Commission to prepare its second and third reading vote, which will take place at the end of March.
The initiative is promoted by Netanyahu’s Likud coalition with far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties, which has governed since last December. After warning last week that the proposal has placed the country “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” due to the polarization it generates, the president, Isaac Herzog, has shown himself convinced this Sunday that the government and opposition can reach an agreement on commitment “in the coming days.”
This Monday, however, the tone has been different. The former prime minister and leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, has accused the government of bringing to a vote “two laws to annul democracy” and a group of deputies have waved the national flag at the beginning of the debate. House Speaker Amir Ohana has expelled several. One of the promoters of the measure, the Minister of Justice, Yariv Levin, has presented himself shortly before the vote as one of the voices excluded by “judges, the academic world and the media, who ignore the majority of Israeli citizens.”
Hours earlier, a visibly upset Netanyahu has accused the organizers of the protests – who have temporarily cut traffic on the highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – of “destroying democracy”. “They do not accept the results of the elections, they do not accept the decision of the majority,” he stressed while focusing on the escrache that this morning prevented a Conservative deputy from taking her daughter, with special needs, to school, and that ” there is room for dialogue” around the amendments as they follow their parliamentary course. The US ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, has recently pointed out that the Joe Biden Administration is asking the prime minister to “push on the brakes” with the reform.
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In addition, the head of the intelligence services inside (Shin Bet), Ronen Bar, has recently spoken with Levin and other ministers to warn them that “the environment is heating up”, with “potential risk of violence”, according to the KAN 11 channel of Israeli television. This Tuesday, he will meet with Lapid.
The Knesset has specifically approved two amendments to the Basic Law (Israel lacks a Constitution). If it finally goes ahead, the first would modify the composition of the committee that elects the Supreme Court judges and which dates from 1953, five years after the birth of the country. Now it is made up of three Court magistrates, two ministers, two deputies -one of them from the opposition- and two members of the bar association. The amendment would leave, in practice, the committee in the hands of the Executive, by granting the seats in the bar association to another minister and another deputy. In addition, it stipulates that the Minister of Justice will choose, with the approval of the president of the high court, two of the judges, who must be retired.
The second amendment would prevent the Supreme Court from revising or knocking down those norms that it considers contrary to the Basic Law, a prerogative that was arrogated a quarter of a century ago and has used in a very limited way. The Court acts as a counterweight in a country without a Constitution, with a highly centralized power structure and a head of state lacking executive power. The most controversial amendment – the one that would allow Parliament to annul a Supreme Court decision by simple majority – has not yet been brought to plenary session.
The right, the majority in power in Israel since 1977, has long perceived the Supreme Court as a stronghold of Ashkenazi power (Jews originating from central and eastern Europe, generally contemptuously associated with the elite and the left) that slows down the expressed popular will at the polls. Now, the most right-wing Executive in the country’s history has quickly launched to laminate its powers and change its composition. The opposition suspects that the rush is related to Netanyahu’s three corruption charges, whose cases could just end up in the Supreme Court if he is convicted and appeals.
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