[Ed. Note: this article has been updated to reflect that the Knesset passed the first reading of the judicial reform amendment to the country’s Basic Law, with 63 in favor, 47 against and no abstentions.
Opposition leaders have vowed to “fight for the soul of the nation” during today’s demonstration as the Knesset held the first reading of a bill about judicial changes promoted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightwing religious-nationalist government.
By Erin Viner
Mass public protests erupted in early January if response to the controversial announcement by Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin of a sweeping “reform of governance” that will limit Supreme Court rulings against government moves or Knesset laws, while increasing politicians’ input over nominations to the bench.
By noon, thousands of citizens carrying Israeli flags and STOP signs streamed to the main demonstration in front of the parliament in Jerusalem to protest the pending vote on the legislation. Similar rallies were held in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Police said eight people were arrested for disorderly conduct and traffic rerouted after demonstrators blocked some roads.
Demonstrations will only increase “in the fight for the soul of the nation,” Opposition leader and former Premier Yair Lapid wrote on Twitter earlier today.
Wielding 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, Netanyahu looked likely to win eventual ratification for the first two changes.
This past Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets nationwide to express opposition to the judicial overhaul. Just one week ago, 100,000 people made their way to the Knesset aboard packed trains and buses In the largest demonstration Jerusalem has seen in years, while the Constitution, Justice and Law Committee made a 9-7 decision inside as a necessary preliminary step to advance the bill to the full Knesset parliament for approval. Three readings of proposed bills must be approved by Members of Knesset (MKs) to become law.
Israel’s right-wing 37th government is an alliance between the Premier’s Likud party with several smaller religious and hard-right nationalist factions which assert they hold the mandate for sweeping change. Likud politicians have long accused the Supreme Court of being dominated by leftist judges who they say encroach on areas outside their authority for political reasons. The government insists the changes are necessary to curb overreach by activist judges and will restore balance between the legislative, executive and judiciary.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is himself on trial on corruption charges which he denies, has dismissed the protests as refusal by leftist adversaries to accept the results of the 1 November’s election which resulted in one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history. He has ardently defended the judicial overhaul.
Demonstrators who talk about democracy are themselves bringing about the end of democracy when they deny elected delegates the fundamental right in a democracy – to vote,” Netanyahu said today in a statement.
Critics, however, believe the proposals threaten the country’s democracy. The Court’s defenders say it plays a vital role in holding the government to account in a country that has no formal constitution. The plan, they say, will not only weaken the courts by eradicating democratic checks and balances, but will also foster corruption, endanger civil liberties, damage the national economy and and bring diplomatic isolation by jeopardizing ties with Western allies.
In a rare televised appeal for postponement of the controversial legislation, President Isaac Herzog made warned that the nation is “on the brink of constitutional and social collapse” just “a moment away from a collision – and even from a violent collision.” Herzog has made repeated calls for the government and opposition to agree on legal reforms and freeze legislation on the present plan. While the sides have voiced willingness to do so, the compromise talks have yet to be held due to disagreement over the terms
Justice Minister Levin shows no sign of backing down, telling Channel 13 on Saturday that he is “determined to complete the legislation” and that “I don’t think it’s right to manage a country with threats and dictations from the street.”
Polls have found that most Israelis want the reforms slowed to allow for dialogue with critics – or shelved altogether.
Condemnation of the revision comes from Israelis across the political, legal, military and financial spectrums.
“If the plan is realized, (Israel’s upcoming) 75th anniversary will be remembered as the year the country’s democratic integrity suffered a mortal blow,” charged Chief Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut. 18 former Supreme Court justices have also expressed strong opposition.
Israeli Bar Association President Avi Chimi charged that the new coalition ministers “want to turn us into a dictatorship,” stressing that “they want to destroy judicial authority, without which there is no democratic country.”
Thousands of IDF reservists and veterans participated in a 50-kilometer (31 mile) protest march to Jerusalem, organized by the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit reservists, under the banner of, “Brothers in Arms: The March to Save Democracy.” Among those to take part were former Mossad Director Tamir Pardo and Major General (Res.) Tal Russo. In addition, 15 former top brass of the Armored Corps signed a statement warning, “the Israeli government’s legislative plan to change the nature of the regime will severely damage the justice system, bring the end of democracy, and bring a dictatorship rule in our country.” Moreover, the senior commanders stressed that the move “could damage the motivation and willingness of the reserves army to mobilize.”
Hundreds of senior Israeli economists and say the plan may cause “grave damage” to Israel’s economy. The country’s five main banks – Hapoalim, Leumi, Mizrahi-Tfachot, Israel Discount and the First International Bank of Israel – also issued an uncommon statement in support of Herzog’s efforts to reach broad understandings over the matter – which they said would benefit the national economy. Moreover, Israel’s Central Bank Governor Professor Amir Yaron stressed to the Knesset Finance Committee that institutional independence is critical for Israel’s sovereign credit rating.
Eight of Israel’s largest investment banks, which manage billions of shekels of public funds, signed a joint letter published by N12 yesterday. “We have seen with concern the implications of the uncertainty on the financial markets and on the public’s savings, and therefore call on all parties to show responsibility and leadership,” they wrote, asserting that “immediate dialogue” must take place between government and the opposition to avert adverse economic fallout.
S&P Global Ratings director Maxim Rybnikov has explained that, “If the announced judicial system changes set a trend for a weakening Israel’s institutional arrangements and existing checks and balances this could in the future present downside risks to the ratings. ”
The Israeli shekel was 0.6% weaker versus the dollar in midday trading today. Seeing instability from the reform feud, many economists, and leaders from high-tech and banking have warned of investor and capital flight from Israel. But a key coalition figure brushed this off.
“There is no link between the justice system reforms and any blow to Israel’s economy,” said Knesset Finance Committee Chairman Moshe Gafni and head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. “Any attempt at linkage is politicized.” Opposition lawmakers responded to Gafni’s statement by calling the committee “a circus.”
Outcry is also coming from abroad. A group of leading American economists issued a statement that undermining judicial independence “would adversely affect the Israeli economy by weakening the rule of law and thereby moving Israel in the direction of Hungary and Poland.”
In an open letter published in Israeli papers, over 200 prominent Jewish-American scientists, including multiple Nobel Prize laureates, wrote: “Such imbalance and unchecked authority invite corruption and abuse, and stifle the healthy interplay of core state institutions,” warning that “the unprecedented erosion of judiciary independence in Israel will set back the Israeli scientific enterprise for generations to come” – including protection of rights for women, minorities and non-religious education while provoking “a rift with the international scientific community” that would increase the risk of boycotts as well as a “‘brain drain’ of [the country’s] best scientists and engineers.”
Yesterday, fifteen Conservative Jewish organizations from Israel and around the world representing over two million Diaspora Jews stated opposition to the overhaul, saying that “love for Israel compels us to action, just as it has in every past crisis the State of Israel has faced,” adding, “we believe that now is the time to identify a better path forward that guarantees the rights of all Israelis and preserves the State of Israel as the Jewish and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people around the world.”
There have also been quiet calls from Washington, which generally avoids commentary on domestic Israeli matters.
“The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, on an independent judiciary,” commented President Joe Biden during an interview with the New York Times, adding that, “Building consensus for fundamental changes is really important to ensure that the people buy into them so they can be sustained.”
Also weighing in on the matter, US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides told CNN podcast The Axe Files published late on Saturday, “We’re telling the Prime Minister, as I tell my kids, pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.”
While the US envoy said Israel has Washington’s support on security and at the United Nations, he cautioned that Netanyahu’s expressed aspirations of forging diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia or dealing with Iran’s nuclear program are at stake.
“The Prime Minister wants to do big things, okay? He tells us he wants to do big things,” said Nides, going on to reveal, “I said to him, to the Prime Minister, a hundred times, we can’t spend time with things we want to work on together if your backyard’s on fire.”
Netanyahu responded to the veiled criticism from Washington last night during an address to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last night, commenting, “All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just as we respect their democratic decisions.
Senior members of the government coalition were far less circumspect than the Prime Minister. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said during a a news conference yesterday, “we always made sure to not intervene in internal American affairs, and so I expect from the United States not to intervene in our internal affairs.” Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli said during an interview with the Kan public broadcaster, “I tell the American Ambassador, you pump the brakes. Mind your own business. You are not sovereign here to discuss judicial reforms. We’re happy to discuss diplomatic and security matters with you but respect our democracy.”