Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced a delay in the contentious judicial overhaul that has polarised the country.
Netanyahu along with his ruling coalition is pushing a set of bills that would overhaul the Israeli judicial system. These proposals have caused months-long protests across Israel that reached unprecedentede scale in recent days with the Israeli military services —the country's most prestigious institutions— also witnessing polarisation and participation in protests.
In a speech on Monday, Netanyahu said he is pausing the passage of proposed laws till April 30. The announcement came after massive protests erupted across the country after he fired Defence Minister Yoav Gallant who had called for a halt of the overhaul.
Netanyahu and supporters of the overhaul say it would bring balance of powers in the country, but critics say it would pave way for authoritarianim by concentrating powers in the hands of Executive and weakening Judiciary to the extent that it would not be able to safeguard civil liberties. Several public figures and experts say the broad idea of proposed laws is not bad, and is actually needed, but the extent to which Netanyahu is going is too extreme.
Here we explain Israel's judicial overhaul, what's its criticism, why Netanyahu paused the process, and what are the reactions to the decision.
Why did Netanyahu delay judicial overhaul?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced that he is delaying the passage of judicial reforms that have polarised the country.
The main concern behind the reforms is that the Judiciary will be weakened to the extent that it would not be able to safeguard civil liberties. Observers have said that Netanyahu had not expected the unprecedented outrage the overhaul has generated, polarising even the country's famed military and intelligence services — the most prestigious institutions of the country well-known across the world for daring missions.
In a speech on Monday evening, Netanyahu said he has paused the overhaul to prevent the "civil war" for "a real opportunity for real dialogue". However, he also said that proposals will go ahead, hinting that while he is open to a compromise or negotiations, he is not withdrawing entirely.
Drawing a comparision to a Biblical story of King Solomon deciding a dispute where two women claimed to be the real mother of a child, Netanyahu said he too is acting in the same manner. In the Biblical story, Solomon said he would cut the child in half so that each woman will get the child. This was done to test who the real mother is. While one man agreed, the real mother said she would get the child but would not want the child to be cut into two, as per the Biblical story.
Netanyahu said, "Today too, two sides of a national disagreement claim to love the baby — to love our country. I am attentive to many people’s desire to end this tension."
Netanyahu further said, "When there is a chance to stop civil war through dialogue, I as prime minister am taking a time out for dialogue. I am giving a real opportunity for real dialogue...We stand by the need to bring about necessary changes to the legal system and we will give an opportunity to achieve them through broad consensus."
Netanyahu said that "out of national responsibility and a will to avoid dividing the nation", he had decided to delay overhaul, reported Times of Israel.
Reactions to delay of overhaul
Israel's political factions opposed to embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began setting up negotiating teams Tuesday. But compromise seemed elusive and Netanyahu's legacy was on the line, in a standoff over the fundamental issue of what kind of country Israel should be — and positions only appear to have hardened.
Three months of demonstrations against the overhaul plan intensified this week and Israel's main trade union declared a general strike, leading to chaos that shut down much of the country and threatened to paralyse the economy.
"He understood that he's in a dead end. And Netanyahu, who is very experienced, understood that now is the time for correction," said Yohanan Plesner, president of Israel Democracy Institute.
Netanyahu's announcement appeared to calm some of the tensions that have fuelled months of unrest. But it failed to address the underlying issues that have polarised Israelis. Netanyahu leads the most right-wing government in Israeli history and and his allies have vowed to enact the legislation.
"I feel relief but with doubt," Fega Gutman, Tel Aviv resident, said Tuesday, adding that Netanyahu over the years "promised us a lot but didn't always fulfill, unfortunately".
The pause gave many Israelis time to consider the challenge ahead.
"I feel good today, everything calmed down from yesterday. We have to figure out together how to fix the situation, how to live together," said Maor Daniel, also from Tel Aviv.
A flurry of phone calls between rival opposition leaders followed Netanyahu's announcement and lasted into Tuesday morning, with several working groups named as the protests subsided and Israel's largest labour union called off its general strike.
Israel's figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, said pausing the legislative blitz was “the right thing” and offered to oversee the negotiating teams. He spoke in separate phone calls with Netanyahu, opposition leader Yair Lapid and National Union Party Chairman Benny Gantz, his office said.
"This is the time for frank, serious and responsible discussion that will lead urgently to calming spirits and lowering the flames," Herzog said.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, an ultra-nationalist who has pushed for quick passage of the package, said it "will pass," though he would respect the delay. "No one will scare us," he tweeted.
Why is Netanyahu's proposed overhaul controversial?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and overhaul's supporters say the proposals would bring balance of power to the government, but critics say it would weaken the Judiciary and would concentrate power in the hands of Executive.
In an article for Slate, Bradley Burston and Dahila Lithwick note that Netanyahu's reforms would bring following changes:
- Requirement of a super-majority of the Supreme Court —up to 80-100 per cent— to strike down any legislation
- Parliament could overturn Supreme Court judgement with simple majority in a Canadian style 'override' clause
- Israel's Basic Laws —equivalent of Constitution— immune from judicial review
- Give politicians more control of appointment of judges
- Amending corruption laws that address two of the three cases against Netanyahu
"The proposal would also grant immunity to prime ministers, ministers, and members of the Knesset 'for any crime they might commit in relation to their position while in office'. So that's awesome," noted the Slate article.
The majority of Israelis are opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's proposed judicial reforms, including up to the half of his own voters, according to a poll held last month.
The poll by the Israel Democracy Institute found that 66 per cent of Israelis believe the Judiciary should have the power to strike down laws, which is among the main features of the overhaul. The Times of Israel further reported that the poll found that among respondents who voted for Opposition parties, 87 per cent support the court’s power to review Basic Laws, and for those who voted for coalition parties, 44 per cent had such a view.
Critics have also highlighted that the overhaul would result in a weakened Judiciary and powerful Executive. They highlight that Israel does not have a proper separation of powers that could isolate Judiciary or Executive or Legislature from each other. They futher point out that Israel does not have a system of checks and balances on Executives like some other countries from where drafters of the overhaul appear to be taking inspiration for the overhaul.
Notably, Israel does not have a Constitution. A set of laws called Basic Laws are the equivalent of the Constitution.
In their article for Slate, Burston and Lithwick note that drafters of the overhaul are going ahead despite Israel having:
- No bicameral Legislature that could add more dialogue to policymaking and balance power among parties
- No US-style federalism where powers are divided carefully between states and federal government
- No separation between Legislature and Executive as Executive is drawn from Legislature
- No charter of rights like Canada despite borrowing Canada's 'override' clause
- No formal Constitution
Dan Arbell of Washington DC-based American University highlights that it's said the overhaul undermines features that have defined Israel its founding.
"The plan calls for near total control over future laws, constitutional amendments and judicial appointments to be concentrated in the hands of the governing coalition in the Knesset. Critics and protesters say the plan undermines the 75-year delicate balance between the three government branches, ends liberal democracy as they know it and pushes Israel towards autocratic rule," writes Arbell in an article for The Conversation.
Even right-wing Israels or those supporting Netanyahu have come in opposition to the overhaul. While they say the basic idea of reforms is acceptable, they say the extreme extent that Netanyahu is taking it is not correct. They also highlight that strengthening Executive without ensuring safeguards like those mentioned above is also not workable. Therefore, they say that a compromise at a middle ground is the best way forward as reforms are needed but not a fundamental overhaul that Netanyahu is pushing.
Moshe Koppel of pro-reforms Kohelet Policy Forum has also encouraged Netanyahu-led ruling coalition to drop the override provision that would allow the Parliament to overrule Supreme Court decisions, "considering the understandable fear that such an override could be abused and the danger that it would contribute to escalating tension between the branches", according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
The CFR further cites former minister Natan Sharansky as saying that both the sides are wrong and need to arrive at a common solution.
The CFR notes, "He supports some of the reforms, such as the one on judicial selection ('The fact that judges are deciding who will be the next judge,' he says, 'is something absolutely unacceptable.') but not others, and criticises both the governing coalition and the opposition for their failure to sit down and negotiate a compromise."
Fundamental questions for Israel
The protests and conversations over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's judicial overhaul has thrown some fundamental questions in front of Israelis. The very relationship of the different branches of government and the nature of polity is under spotlight.
Moreover, the polarisation is such that Israel's famed military and intelligence services along with the diplomatic corps also stand polarised.
The protests have also stressed the Israeli economy with banking and financial sectors leaders saying that questions over the state of Israeli democracy are not great for the economy and for invester sentiment. The Israeli stock exchange has since the beginning of the protests lost over 300 points, declining to 1,772 at the time of writing this story from 2,100 on January 1, according to data on Yahoo Finance.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, told CNBC, "Investors, and the global economy as a whole, seek not only stability, but often are drawn to countries with independent institutions such as the judiciary and a strong central bank."
Curtailing the independence of institutions "leads to a drop in foreign investment and a downgrading of their credit rating", Plesner warned, adding that the hope is that "Israel’s leadership understands the risks it is imposing on the Israeli economy".
(With AP inputs)