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On June 24th, 2023, the Israeli Parliament (Knesset) ratified the judicial reform — a bill that directly impacts Israel’s judiciary system and its power by abolishing a “reasonability” standard. This standard allows the Supreme Court to strike down government decisions based on “unreasonableness.” The country is now facing high levels of instability, with public outrage and objection towards the new legislation.
What Does the Judicial Overhaul Entail?
This measure, also named “Levin’s plan” after the Minister of Defense, Yariv Levin, limits the influence of the Supreme Court by aiming to correct the judicial overreach and boost a majoritarian Democracy. Netanyahu’s coalition proposal plans to succeed by allowing politicians to appoint a plurality of the justices to the bench while creating a majority of 61 in 120 seats of the Knesset, obstructing the High Court’s overriding rulings.
As a Parliamentary Democracy, Israel places significant power on the Prime Minister, who works with an alliance of political parties. The sole organ that can block the actions of these groups is the Supreme Court. With the abolition of the reasonableness standard, there is great concern that the protection against improper use of government power will be fragile and at risk of destruction.
Public Outrage and Protests
Widespread protests and opposition movements took place in the country, with public outrage escalating and people expressing their urgent concern about the government undermining their democratic principles. Thousands of reservists, including submarines, pilots and other units, have refused to continue their voluntary military service in support of the protests.
In response to the massive protests, Tamir Hayman, the former representative of the Israeli Military Intelligence Division, argued that “the military’s ability to fulfill its role and basic character as “the people’s army” was at risk.” Political opposition groups have also been showing their objections. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid stated Netanyahu’s administration is an “extreme government who is hugging and posing to celebrate the moment they made it that we are no longer a brotherly people,” emphasizing Benjamin Netanyahu was influenced by “messianic extremists.”
Scholars who oppose this bill offer a reasonable concern that this decision favours a future dictatorship. With the judicial overhaul aiming to terminate the unelected judges that form Israel’s judicial branch, the neutrality of arbitrators would be at risk, allowing a single party to have total control over Israel.
Where Does the Government Stand?
In an interview with ABC News on July 27th, Benjamin Netanyahu argued that the unbalanced judiciary system motivated the overhaul decision. He added that it presents more force than necessary and that there is excessive power in the hands of unelected judges, negatively impacting the executive branch responsible for implementing laws and policies adopted by the legislative branch, which makes the laws and holds the administration accountable.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television on August 6th, Netanyahu noted that his goal is to seek national consensus on judicial reform and that he will wait a couple of months to attempt to push through this reform. He only finds the committee that selects judges up for debate; he expresses that the government should not move to an extreme where they have “the most activist judicial court on the planet” until the Knesset can strike down any decision the Supreme Court makes. His main motivation seems to lie in ensuring the Court does not intervene in any matter without reference to any statute or law.
Rise of Israel’s Far Right and Settlement
Under the previous government of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, Israel had a diverse rotating prime ministership with a coalition that represented a broad political spectrum, including the first Arab party in Israel’s history. However, Bennett’s government had an unexpected ending, with several right-wing nationalists seizing to support the government in response to pro-Palestinian politicians in power and a secular Jewish party. With the loss of the parliamentary majority, Bennett could not pass the West Bank settler vote, which made Israeli Laws applicable to Jewish settlers in the West Bank.
In response to this failed vote and Bennett’s resignation from the government, Yair Lapid became the interim Prime Minister until there was a newly elected administration. Benjamin Netanyahu was ready for this challenge as the 2022 elections rolled in. He relied on obtaining his majority by motivating a high voter turnout and gaining support from his ultra-Orthodox allies, his party Likud, and Religious Zionism. This political organization is mainly known for its beliefs in annexing the West Bank settlements and political control over the judiciary. It is composed of the “Jewish Power,” led by Itamar Ben Gvir, the anti-LGBTQ party, Noam, and the National Union, led by Bezalel Smotrich. Gvir has been known for his public discourses supporting control over the Palestinian minority that has been increasing in Israel and Jewish supremacy. Smotrich presents the same mindset as Gvir, with extreme statements that include denying the existence of Palestinian nationhood and calling for the erasure of Palestinian towns.
The increased tensions between Israel and Palestine after May 2021, and its rising intra-communal tensions after Israelis attempted to displace Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, led to a mass vote of Israelis in Far Right parties, especially young people and first-time voters. Political commentator and journalist Noam Sheizaf mentions that many Israelis “grew up under Netanyahu’s rule and absorbed a lot of his paranoid and toxic discourse about the Arabs and the left wing.” After Netanyahu’s victory in the polls, he and his coalition prioritized and built settlement expansion, with a pledge to “advance and develop settlement in all parts of the land of Israel — Galilee, Negev, Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria.”
With this pledge in mind, Netanyahu allowed Smotrich to bypass settlement measures, which are illegal under international law, specifically UN resolution 242. Going against UN protocols on settlement matters does not strike Netanyahu and his coalition, as he expressed on Twitter that “the Jewish people are not occupiers on their … land, nor occupiers in our eternal capital Jerusalem, and no UN resolution [could] warp that historical proof.”
Now wanting political control over the judicial branch, the coalition’s goal to expand and strengthen Israeli control over the West Bank territory is seemingly a frightening reality for many people. Netanyahu is in a position where the judicial overhaul is now important for his coalition and party and has become a convenient bill that could positively impact his current trial for breach of trust, bribery, and fraud.
Palestinians’ Concern After Judicial Overhaul
Alongside the pressing upbringing of this judicial overhaul, Palestinians living in Israel, are greatly concerned about how it would further enable the discrimination faced by Palestinian citizens of Israel.
In a political landscape that has increasingly further shifted to the far-right in recent decades, the Israeli Supreme Court is one of the few institutions that has shown restraint in Israel’s discriminatory policies toward Palestinian issues.
The Supreme Court had only disqualified 22 laws, with a small number relating to Palestinian rights; one key example of this relative restraint includes the 2020 decision to dismiss the “Regularization Law,” which sought to legalize confiscating privately owned Palestinian land.
According to Palestinian Human Rights lawyer Sawsan Zaher, it is notable that Palestinians were mainly dismissed or upheld by the High Court on numerous occasions. In May of last year, the Supreme Court rejected appeals made by Palestinians living in Masafer Yatta, going against eviction orders and approving Israeli forces to clear the area for military training. In November 2015, the Court passed an amendment that denied social welfare benefits to Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.
In addition to further enabling the discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel, many Israeli and Palestinian civilians see this judicial overhaul as an attempt to boost illegal Israeli settlement in the Palestinian Territories. This attempt comes after the far-right’s negative response to the 2020 Supreme Court objection to Israel’s claim to sovereignty in the West Bank Palestinian area as per the 1993 Oslo Accords. To make peace with his base of supporters, Netanyahu responded that the best way to solve the “issue” of the illegal settlements would be to formally annex Israel in a large area of the West Bank.
Likud’s Settlement Motivations
When taking the time to analyze the Israeli political scenario and how the rise of the extreme far-right party came into place, it is noticeable how the issue of settlement expansion has been one of the main reasons that brought the different political groups into forming a coalition. Netanyahu promised to expand the security ministry for Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to create a majority government and establish a new administration. The meeting point behind the coalition relies on the collective shared views of ultimate control of the West Bank and settlement expansion. This motivation was and still has not been a hidden agenda from the administration; Netanyahu addressed the ideological basis of his coalition on Twitter, saying that “the government will promote and develop a settlement in all parts of the land of Israel,” including, he added, the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu’s administration and its impact on Palestinians is critical. As expressed by journalist Jalal Abukhater, the current Israeli government is taking a fast track in ethnic cleansing and normalizing Jewish supremacy by trying to convince the world that Israel is right to implement settlement expansion based on basic tenets of Zionism: “The ones [Palestinian citizens of Israel] fear the most, in our daily lives, and injuring us directly, are … the ones setting policies.” Netanyahu used the judicial overhaul policy as the perfect strategy for obtaining this goal while bypassing opposition agencies and avoiding accountability. His administration’s oppressive and settlement expansion patterns make it difficult to picture his far-right coalition having the pure samaritan desire to “recover” the judicial branch with a judicial overhaul without risking Israeli democracy and Palestinian rights.
Edited by Majeed Malhas