Schusterman Center explains Israeli democracy
Six political experts gathered to discuss the current political crisis in Israel.
Editor’s Note: Justice Editor Dalya Koller contributed to reporting for this article.
On Wednesday, March 22, the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies and the Crown Center for Middle East Studies hosted a panel titled “The Future of Israeli Democracy: Judicial Reform and Political Crisis.” The Chancellor of the Hebrew University and former Chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, Menahem Ben-Sasson; Prof. Jeffrey Lenowitz (POL); Prof. Yehuda Mirsky (NEJS); Prof. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe (NEJS); Prof. Rima Farah (HBRW); and Prof. Alexander Kaye (NEJS), dove deep into the political implications of the recent potential judicial reforms rocking Israel and the Jewish world.
The Israeli government is working to pass reforms that will grant less judicial review power to Israel’s Supreme Court and give the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, more power than it currently holds. The proposed reforms will allow a simple majority of one in the Knesset to overrule court decisions. The government will also have decisive say regarding who will become a judge. Additionally, ministers, by law, are currently required to obey the advice of legal advisers who are guided by the attorney general, but the new reforms will no longer require ministers to do so. A reform that removed the power of the attorney general to deem the sitting prime minister unfit for office has already been passed. There has been talk of the current attorney general planning to do so with Netanyahu, after the attorney general warned Netanyahu that he has violated the country’s law regarding conflict of interest for working on these proposed reforms while himself undergoing a trial for corruption, according to the Associated Press.
The panelists explained that if these judicial reforms are passed, the Knesset will have a much easier time changing basic laws without the judicial branch being able to step in. “[The change of basic laws] is cruel; it doesn’t give an opportunity for the opposition to talk…thirdly it is changing the rules [of] the game while it is still running,” Ben-Sasson said. Just one election in Israel will lead to the complete control of the state, according to Lenowitz. Israelis in favor of democracy are against changing the judicial appointment process for many reasons, but especially because it gives the Knesset the ability to control policies about minority rights, settlements, and other polarizing issues without checks from other governmental branches.
Israeli citizens have responded to the proposed reforms with fierce backlash: Hundreds of thousands of people gathered for demonstrations across the country for 12 straight weeks, and Israeli unions launched days-long, nationwide strikes. Large numbers of the Israeli military’s reservists — who largely make up the backbone of Israel’s armed forces — have refused to report for duty. Both the president and the defense minister of Israel, Yoav Gallant and Isaac Herzog, respectively, urged Netanyahu to back down from the proposed judicial reforms, which led to Netanyahu abruptly firing Gallant just hours after his public statement. Tel Aviv’s biggest highway was completely blocked by protesters on March 26, subsequent to the firing of Gallant.
As of March 27, Netanyahu announced via a televised address to the nation that he would delay voting on the reforms until after the Knesset’s Passover recess in April. According to CNN, Netanyahu stated that he was “aware of the tensions” and is “listening to the people, but he clarified that this was not a permanent backing down and rather will just “give time for a real chance for a real debate.” He continued to insist that the judicial reform was necessary.
The panelists explained that some of the various political groups represented in the current government’s coalition, including the Religious Zionists, Ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahi Jews, and center-left, see reforms differently. The Ultra-Orthodox block wants to secure funding for their own institutions and lifestyle. Mizrahi Jews see the conflict as perpetuating the socioeconomic conflict between elites and non-elites within Israel, so they negatively view the theocratic aspect of Israeli law. Religious Zionists are split in two: the elite and those who partner with secular Israel. The center-left block of Israeli voters are not involved in discussions about religion and culture as opposed to right-wing parties and have no strong ideological position. The dynamic between the groups is causing increased polarization. For example, center-left leaning opposition leader Yair Lapid supports the implementation of a written constitution with Israel’s founding democratic ideals at heart, but right-leaning leaders do not support writing a constitution.
Mirsky mentioned that the judiciary will no longer be legitimate in the eyes of the population at large if the Knesset approves the judicial reforms, explaining that many identity politics play out in the judiciary sector, and Israeli liberals see the court as the last defender of minority rights in Israel. Identity and politics clash heavily in Israel because different groups imagine the combination of Judaism and democracy differently depending on their religious practice, socioeconomic status, family history, race, nationality, gender, and ethnicity. The panelists discussed how the judicial reforms suggest a right-leaning, theocratic direction of the government and how that will affect the future of Israeli democracy. Both Mirsky and Ben-Sasson talked about the importance of maintaining Israel’s liberal socialist founding values, but with the current judicial reforms, right-leaning leaders have been shaping Israeli institutions and governmental rights. Implementing the judicial reforms is a step away from the liberal democracy upon which the Jewish people founded Israel.
Though it is unclear how the future of the proposed judicial reforms will play out and how they may affect Israeli democracy and society, many of the panelists expressed optimism and hope that the government will listen to the rallying cries of the protestors and definitively back down from supporting the undemocratic judicial reforms.