A judicial reform that threatens Israeli democracy


The protests in the streets, in Parliament and in all forums of debate in Israel against the radical judicial reform that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the star of his government's programme continue unabated. Demonstrations are taking place, well attended by people from all walks of life, mainly in Tel Aviv, but also in Jerusalem, Haifa and twenty other cities, decrying what they see as a full-fledged assault on the judiciary.

In essence, the bill presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin in early January curtails the powers of the Supreme Court in favour of the Knesset (parliament), to the extent that MPs could approve by a simple majority laws that the justices have annulled for contravening the constitution. The text also envisages giving the government almost absolute power over the appointment of judges and, at the same time, limiting the independence of the legal experts who advise the government. In short, opponents of the reform believe that Netanyahu, who is himself being prosecuted for corruption, would deal a death blow to Israel's system of checks, balances and balances, in other words, attack the foundations of the democratic system that has governed the country, and which has allowed it to be on a par with democracy since its establishment in 1948.

On the contrary, from within the government ranks, both from Likud and its allies on the extreme right and the ultra-Orthodox, it is felt that it is time to reform a judicial system that had been given too much power in the last decade of the twentieth century, so that it had become excessively interventionist in the law-making process.

Certainly, Netanyahu's own judicial situation does nothing to dispel the suspicions of his detractors that he is primarily seeking to stay out of jail, but rather to link the end of his executive power to his appointment as head of the Israeli state. In Israel, while the prime minister lacks immunity even though he may be on trial for corruption, this does not oblige him to resign or be removed from office pending trial.

Nor does it help that his right-hand man in government, Arié Dery, convicted of tax fraud, had just sat down at the Council of Ministers' table and introduced a bill that would allow a person convicted of any crime, but without a final prison sentence, to remain in government. The Supreme Court severely criticised Dery's appointment, denouncing it as "in flagrant contradiction to the fundamental principles of the rule of law", prompting Netanyahu to dispense with his services.

Albeit in a minority, the opposition is amplifying the volume of its protests. Its current leader, Yair Lapid, drawing on an epic with Churchillian reminiscences, declared: "We will fight here in the streets, we will fight in the Knesset, we will fight in the courts, we will save Israel because we refuse to live in an undemocratic country".

In the same vein, the mayor of populous Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, added: "If words end, actions will begin. We will not limit ourselves to public squares, we will not be indifferent, we will not react with resignation".

This is probably the most intense debate on the balance of power in Israel's history, and it comes at a time when the country is enjoying undoubted success in opening up and establishing relations with Arab countries thanks to the Abraham Accords. These successes, however, are overshadowed by the resurgence of the conflict with the Palestinians, the Palestinians' growing sense of being further and further away from the supposed will to grant them a sovereign state, and the reality of an increasing colonisation of the occupied West Bank, which would make such a solution definitively unfeasible.