For those who are having a hard time keeping up with developments in Israel, we can relate! But don’t worry; this concise summary will give you some background about Israel’s controversial judicial reform, and then bring you up to date on what’s going on right now.
At the end of December 2022, Netanyahu returned to power for his third term as prime minister with the farthest-right government coalition that Israel has ever seen. Upon entering office, one of the first things that the government did was to publish an intention to reform Israel’s judicial system, which many see as corrupt. Justice Minister Yariv Levin and MK Simcha Rothman headed the push for reform.
Advocates of the reform cite judicial overreach and nepotism in the court system. In the 1990s, Chief Justice Aharon Barak significantly expanded the authority of the SC to rule on a variety of issues. Based on this precedent, the Israeli Supreme Court has since struck down a number of Israeli laws deemed by the court “unreasonable.” In addition, many feel that the means by which justices are appointed to the Supreme Court is elitist and undemocratic. Israeli politicians, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, have been attempting to instigate reform to this system since at least 2009.
However, the content of the reform proposed by Netanyahu’s government set off alarm bells for many Israeli citizens, who soon took to the streets to protest the reform. In summary, they are concerned that, instead of righting the balance of powers between the Knesset and the Court, as the government claims, the reform will actually centralize nearly all government power in the executive branch. The specifically controversial parts of the reform are a) an “override” clause, which would grant the Knesset the ability to strike down Supreme Court rulings on Knesset legislation with a simple majority of 61/120 seats; and b) changing the makeup of the judicial appointments committee to include MKs as well as legal professionals (which arguably centralizes power).
The Protest Movement:
The reform has been widely hailed as a “coup” and the end of democracy, but despite the widespread condemnation, including from the Diaspora Jewish community, the government continued to push through its legislation. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Israelis turned out to protest every week. Although their determination and patriotism was admirable, there were some stand-out controversies, such as the refusal of high-level IDF reserve troops to report for duty in protest.
Arguably, the most concerning phenomena of the last 12 weeks is the extreme polarization of the Israeli public. Despite various half-hearted calls for dialogue and tireless work by Israel’s president Isaac Herzog, it was clear that both left and right were far more interested in being right than in truly finding a compromise that would benefit Israelis.
In tandem, the unrest caused several other significant problems, namely harsh condemnation from the White House and from leaders of the international Jewish community, and a spike in terror attacks, which have caused the deaths of 15 Israelis to date, since the beginning of the year.
What’s Going on Now?
Eventually, the government began to show the strain as various members of the government coalition publicly expressed concern. During a democratic visit to London by Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant joined this camp by calling for a pause in the legislation.
Upon his return to Israel, Netanyahu fired Gallant, citing his handling of the IDF reserves refusal situation; however many felt that the timing, directly after Gallant’s condemnation of the judicial reform, was suspicious (many now expect Gallant to be reinstated). The termination of the Defense Minister sparked intense and spontaneous protests, including a threatened labor strike and the grounding of all flights by Ben Gurion Intl. Airport. US President Biden apparently added extreme diplomatic pressure on Netanyahu behind the scenes. Ultimately, the prime minister was forced to cave, and in a speech Monday evening, March 27, Netanyahu announced a pause to the judicial reforms.
However, it appears that the chaos is not yet over. Many protesters expressed their lack of trust in the government and promised to continue protesting until they receive assurance that the legislation is shelved for good. Additionally, in order to assure the cooperation of National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, Netanyahu gave him permission to form and head a new national guard force, a move that has concerned many.
Perhaps worst of all, American-Israeli relations do not appear to have improved, despite the pause to the reform. In contrast to an almost-promise by American ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, that Netanyahu would soon receive an invitation to the White House, Biden himself sharply replied to a reporter that no, Netanyahu would not be invited to the US any time soon. Biden’s statement sparked significant irritation in Israel, and many Israelis feel that the US no longer respects Israel’s sovereignty. This continued cooling of American-Israeli relations is concerning!
In short, Israel continues to need your prayers!! Please continue to pray for calm and unity.
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