Mass protests are paralyzing Israel. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial bill that was passed

On July 24, Israeli lawmakers approved a key portion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to reshape the country’s justice system, reported AP News

The enactment of the law is the government’s first victory in a seven-month effort to reduce the court’s power.

The decision came despite the fact that there have been widespread protests that have paralyzed much of the country for almost 30 weeks. There has been an eruption of street protests, labor strikes as well as disquiet in the military.

“The overhaul, pushed by Netanyahu and his far-right allies, calls for sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary,” reported AP News. “It will limit the Supreme Court’s ability to challenge parliamentary decisions and change the way judges are selected.”

What led up to all this and what happens now?

Here’s what we know. 

1) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been planning to weaken the Supreme Court for the past seven months

This past January, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin—a confidant of Prime Minister Netanyahu and a longtime critic of the country’s Supreme Court—unveiled a plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system and weaken the Court.

Levin presented his plan a day before the justices were to debate a controversial new law that allows a politician convicted of tax offenses to serve as a Cabinet minister.

The reform would change the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee so that control over the appointment of judges is effectively given to the government.

This would prevent the Supreme Court from ruling on the validity of a Basic Law, which would allow the Knesset (parliament) to override the Supreme Court’s interpretation or nullification of a regular law.

The law will abolish the use of “unreasonableness” as grounds for review of administrative decisions, and reclassify ministry legal advisers from independent authorities to politically selected counsel whose opinions are not binding.

Last but not least, it allows ministers to reject the Attorney-General’s advice in any matter.

2) Critics have accused the government of declaring war against the judiciary 

Critics of the new law and wide-ranging judicial reform said the plan would upend Israel’s system of checks and balances and undermine democratic institutions by giving absolute power to the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history,” Al Jazeera reported.  

Intense opposition to the plan caused widespread protests compelling Netanyahu to delay the plan in late March

After six months of stops and starts, Netanyahu seemed to be primed to push the first part of his legislation through parliament as early as this past weekend, reported NBC News on July 19.

3) Netanyahu says the legislation will help “curb activist judges”

Days after Netanyahu’s remarkable return to power in January, the Prime Minister’s justice minister unveiled a plan to change the country’s judicial system, which critics slam as an attempt to weaken Israel’s judiciary and escape his corruption trial.

To put it into context: In November 2019, Netanyahu was charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes after three years of investigation.

Benjamin Netanyahu Mass protests are paralyzing Israel. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial bill that was passed

“Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit charged Netanyahu after investigating reports of him accepting gifts from millionaire friends and allegedly seeking regulatory favors for media tycoons in return for favorable coverage,” reported Al Jazeera this past March. 

Netanyahu denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty as the trial continued.

The now-law would give the government greater control over appointing Supreme Court judges. Netanyahu says the changes are needed to curb activist judges who overreach their powers and interfere in politics.

Netanyahu says the legislative changes are needed to curb activist judges who overreach their powers to interfere in politics, as per Al Jazeera

The judicial reform would strip the Supreme Court of the power to rule government actions as unreasonable. 

The Court had used that clause to stop Netanyahu appointing a man convicted of tax fraud to a senior cabinet post. 

4) There have been a series of street protests, strikes, and hunger strikes since the plan was unveiled

A series of street protests, strikes, and hunger strikes began in Israel in early 2023 in response to the ruling government’s push for the wide-ranging judicial reform. 

On March 26, in response to the firing of Defense Minister Gallant, hundreds of thousands of protesters blocked roads across Israel in over 150 locations.

In recent days, demonstrators have been swarming over major train platforms while military veterans chained themselves together in front of the Defense Ministry. At least 45 people have been arrested.

Police have also used water cannons to clear crowds from the major highway. 

5) Protests continued as Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington 

On July 20, Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress in Washington.

Netanyahu received a bi-partisan welcome but some progressive democrats including representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar stated earlier that they would not attend in protest of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

6) Different sectors of the economy are also refusing to show up for duty if the government pushes ahead including military reservists

It isn’t only the grassroots protests that have been happening. Most significantly, 10,000 reserve officers in Israel’s army are saying they will no longer volunteer to serve if the bill is passed. 

This also includes 500 Reservist Air Force pilots and navigators who are said to be vital to the country’s air force. 

In addition, different sectors of the economy are also refusing to work if the bill is passed: this includes doctors and business people as well as the tech sector which is regarded as the “engine” of Israel’s economy. 

7) This past weekend, tens of thousands of protestors mobilized ahead of key vote on judicial reforms

Masses of the public marched over four days to Jerusalem in the mid-summer heat, maneuvering over steep hills to reach the city.  

There were more protests and rallies planned for Monday, July 24 ahead of the vote that is scheduled in the parliament for the judicial reform package. 

8) The Prime Minister pushed forward with the bill as soon as he came out of the hospital 

israel 1 Mass protests are paralyzing Israel. Here’s what you need to know about the controversial bill that was passed

Netanyahu has been admitted to hospital twice in the past week to be fitted for a pacemaker—including over the weekend.

There were rumors last week that Netanyahu could possibly back down on the vote or even soften some of its components, but “the 73-year-old leader pushed forward with it and on Monday arrived at the Knesset, shortly after being released from the hospital,” reported CNN on July 24. 

9) The protesters were hoping that a last minute intervention from the United States might force their government to back down 

Even though US President Joe Biden had repeatedly expressed concern about Netanyahu’s plan, he said nothing publicly on July 19 in a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Washington, D.C. 

Protesters were also reportedly frustrated that Biden had extended an invitation to Netanyahu to visit the US. 

“This is bad for the Israeli protest movement,” said Josh Drill, a spokesperson for the Israeli National Protest Movement this past weekend. “[Netanyahu] is a tyrant who seeks to dismantle democracy. [How is it that he is] invited to the Oval Office? This is unacceptable.”

10) There were warnings to Netanyahu about the bill’s danger to the country—even from his own defense minister

There have been warnings to the Israeli Prime Minister to stop the plan and to reconsider. There are five more days in the sitting of this Parliament. “Netanyahu does like to leave things to the last minute,” said one reporter for CBC. “He was meant to meet with defense chiefs today (July 23).”

It was also reported that Israel’s defense minister went to see Netanyahu approximately eight hours after he had the operation. “His beliefs are known. He thinks that this is now becoming a danger to the security of the country.”

11) Israel’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, regarded as the “mastermind” behind the reforms, called the new law a “first step”

The justice minister called the newly-minted law “the first step in our historic process of fixing the justice system.”

Right-wing ministers and lawmakers took selfies in the parliamentary plenum rule to celebrate their victory. “The vote was 64 in favor and zero against, after members of the opposition left the chamber, boycotting the vote they had no chance of winning,” reported the New York Times.

12) The Movement for Quality Government—a leading Israeli rights watchdog—has petitioned the Court to strike down the new law

The petition sets the stage for a possible constitutional crisis, says the New York Times

“The government of destruction has raised its malicious hand against the state of Israel. Now it’s the Supreme Court’s turn to step up and prevent this legislation,” Eliad Shraga, the movement’s chairman, said in a statement.

Also: the leader of the country’s largest union, the Histadrut, again threatened a general strike in the aftermath of the vote. “Arnon Bar-David said he would soon convene the union’s leadership to declare a labor dispute, the first step toward initiating a general work stoppage. He did not say when a strike could begin, only that he would call one ‘if necessary.’”

Grassroots leaders of one of the main protest groups vowed to “fight till the end,” adding in a statement, “The state of Israel is going through the darkest period since its establishment.”

Also read:

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Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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