Amid Protests, Israeli Judicial Overhaul Advances

Protests in Israel have entered their eleventh week as concerned Israelis respond to government plans to overhaul the judicial system. Thousands of people have held demonstrations across the country. In Tel Aviv, one protestor told NPR they were fighting for “the country and for the future of our- my grandchildren and their children, because the country is changing.” On International Women’s Day, thousands of Israeli women formed a human chain to advocate against the overhaul, and on March 17th hundreds of military officers threatened to walk out in protest. Tensions have escalated in recent weeks, with clashes between protesters and government supporters leading to violence.

Proposed changes to the judiciary system were put forward at the beginning of the year by the ruling coalition (including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s (he/him) Likud party). According to the Israel Democracy institute, the changes would alter the Judicial Selection Committee’s composition to give the ruling party control over the selection of judges. It would also allow the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority vote.

The Associated Press explains that proponents of the overhaul say it will place appropriate limits on the power of unelected judges. However, it also been widely criticized as anti-democratic. Opposition member of the Knesset and former commander of the Israeli Defense Force Benny Gantz (he/him) told Reuters in early March that while “agreements can be reached, compromise on democracy we cannot reached [sic].”

U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden (D, he/him) and Secretary of State Antony Blinken (he/him) have expressed some concerns with the overhaul and emphasized the need for consensus. The Times of Israel reported that Biden called the prime minister on March 19th. A Biden administration official said they had a “candid and constructive” conversation in which Biden emphasized the need for compromise.

Netanyahu made concessions on March 20th, announcing that all of the reform bills would be postponed except for the Judicial Selection Committee bill. He said the coalition was “extending a hand to anyone who genuinely cares about national unity and the desire to reach an agreed accord.” The bill was also changed to reduce to number of government coalition members on the panel, although they would still hold a majority. Many critics were not satisfied, however. Yair Lapid (he/him), opposition leader and head of the Yesh Atid party, called the bill “a hostile takeover of the judicial system.” He raised fears that it would destroy the balance of powers, and that if the law passed, “Israel stops being a democracy.” The Likud party voted 34-4 to approve the new bill, said The Times, moving forward on an attempt to pass the legislation before the Knesset breaks on April 2nd.

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