Tel Aviv, judiciary, protest, bonfire
Protest against proposed government changes to the judiciary in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo credit: Oren Ziv / WhoWhatWhy

In a blow to the country’s rule of law, Israel’s Parliament on Monday passed a measure to curb the power of the courts.

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Israel is often called “the only democracy in the Middle East.” After the country’s far-right coalition passed a key part of its “judicial reform” on Monday, that claim rings a little less true.

Following weeks of massive protests against this so-called reform, lawmakers began the process of curtailing the powers of Israel’s judiciary.

Specifically, the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved a measure that prevents judges from overturning government decisions, including those made by individual ministers, that they deem to be “unreasonable.”

After a walkout of opposition lawmakers, the controversial legislation passed unanimously. This seems like an accurate reflection of how authoritarian governments like to portray their victories.

However, the result cannot paper over the deep divisions in Israel concerning the entire reform package. Critics of the effort to strip power from the courts say it is a clear move away from democracy.

Because Israel does not have a written constitution, the courts play an especially important role in ensuring that the rule of law is maintained and that the country does not become an authoritarian state of a theocracy. In light of the outsized influence of far-right religious factions, the latter always seems like a possibility.

It is also important to remember that the “reforms” may also benefit Netanyahu personally. The prime minister has been charged with fraud, bribery, and breach of trust in three different cases. Experts on Israel, including a former attorney general, believe that one of the goals of the legislation is to stop Netanyahu’s trial.

Opponents of the newly passed law are now pinning their hopes on Israel’s Supreme Court, i.e., exactly the body whose power the measure is supposed to curb.

If the court rules against it, there is a good chance that the country will have an even bigger crisis on its hands.

Before such a decision is made, it seems likely that Israel will suffer through a period of unrest. Opponents of the measure will try to grind the country to a halt through protests and strikes. In addition, thousands of reservists have said they will no longer report to their voluntary duty because of the legislation.

However, it is not just regular people who oppose the new law but also many businesses and organizations.

As Netanyahu’s coalition, considered to be the most ultranationalist and conservative in Israel’s history, will try to push through other parts of its judicial “reforms,” this sets up an intriguing dynamic.

On the one side, you have a very determined group of right-wing politicians who want to weaken their country’s democracy. On the other, you have an equally determined and much larger group of citizens whose power comes purely from their strength in numbers.

If the people prevail, which seems like a bit of a stretch right now, pro-democracy Americans should take note of how it’s done.


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