Middle East

What’s Next for Israel’s Judicial Overhaul and Netanyahu?

They call it “salami tactics.”

Critics of the plan by Israel’s right-wing government to overhaul the country’s judiciary accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of slicing up the original legislative package in a bid to make it more palatable. Some protesters made that point by brandishing giant plastic salamis during large-scale protests on Tuesday.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies argue that all they want is to give more power to elected officials and take more control from unelected Supreme Court judges, who they say are overstepping their roles. But Mr. Netanyahu may be searching for ways to proceed with the plan more slowly after protests in March brought parts of the country to a virtual standstill.

On Wednesday, the Parliament took a step that maintained the longstanding format of the committee that selects judges. But some members of Mr. Netanyahu’s government say the committee will not convene until new legislation is passed to reconstitute the panel in a way that will give government representatives an automatic majority.

By using a more piecemeal approach to the judicial overhaul, Mr. Netanyahu may be trying to appease his hard-line coalition partners, who insist on seeing some progress on their goals, while trying to make the changes easier for critics to swallow.

“The new piecemeal approach, legislating chapter by chapter, is obviously a lot more sophisticated politically,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “You bring one issue at a time into the political discourse,” he said, making it more difficult for opponents to mobilize protests as the question of what is to come becomes ambiguous.

The stakes could hardly be higher for Mr. Netanyahu, and for the country as a whole. Shelving the judicial overhaul plan could mean a collapse of the government and a return to the kind of political instability that led Israel to hold five elections in the past four years.

But pressing ahead without any broad public consensus could further strain Israel’s relations with the Biden administration and disrupt the economy. Amir Yaron, the governor of Israel’s central bank, said this week that the continued uncertainty and instability created by the judicial proposals was “liable to have notable economic costs.”

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, warned that the schism could lead to civil war.

Parliament voted Tuesday in favor of a piece of legislation advancing the judicial overhaul plan, setting off another tumultuous day of protests. That bill needs to pass two more votes to become law, and the government appears set on holding the final vote before Parliament breaks for summer recess at the end of this month.

The bill in question would bar the Israeli courts from using the legal standard of “reasonableness” to strike down government decisions in the realm of policy or appointments, removing one of its main tools of judicial oversight. A parliamentary committee on Wednesday began preparing the bill for second and third readings.

The bill moved forward after a three-month hiatus during which the government and the opposition sought but failed to reach a compromise on the broader proposed overhaul.

Some Israeli legal experts say there is an argument for curtailing the court’s use of the vague standard of reasonableness, which has never been defined under Israeli law. Mr. Netanyahu said this week that the judicial change was “not the end of democracy but rather the strengthening of democracy.”

Supporters of the overhaul said the courts had other tools to oversee government appointments and decisions, without relying on reasonableness. The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a staunch supporter, described the restriction on reasonableness as “an essential necessity” — one, he asserted, that actually enjoys a “broad consensus.”

But many legal scholars have denounced what they call the drastic version of the proposed law, saying it could be used by Mr. Netanyahu to replace the attorney general and halt his own trial on charges of corruption. Mr. Netanyahu has denied any such motives and any wrongdoing.

It’s hard to know. The current bill, while controversial, does not include some of the most contentious changes proposed earlier by Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition.

The question in many people’s minds is whether Mr. Netanyahu will stop after this bill’s passage in hopes it will satisfy his coalition partners. Or will he make more changes piece by piece, as the opposition fears.

In one example of how opaque the situation is, Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview last week that he had thrown out a particularly divisive part of the judicial overhaul plan that would allow Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions. But several of his ministers have since said it remains on the agenda.

The bill to change the makeup of the judges’ selection committee was suspended after the wave of protests in March, but it could be brought back to Parliament for approval at any time.

Mr. Netanyahu is caught between stabilizing his coalition, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that have their own reasons for wanting to restrict the powers of the Supreme Court, and the fury of more liberal Israelis who are likely to ramp up the protests if and when the “reasonableness” bill comes up for a final vote.

“Netanyahu remains very ambiguous about whether this will be the last chapter, whereas other members of the government are very explicit about their intention to continue,” Mr. Plesner said. “Nobody really knows.”

Outnumbered in Parliament, Israel’s opposition parties are powerless to vote down the judicial legislation on their own.

But the popular backlash to the overhaul has come from the centers of power of Israeli society, including hundreds of volunteers in the most elite ranks of the military reserves, along with leaders from the vaunted high-tech industry, academia, the medical profession and the powerful trade unions. All of these power players joined forces and compelled Mr. Netanyahu to pause the overhaul a few months ago.

Reservists from prestigious units of the army are again threatening to stop volunteering if the overhaul moves ahead.

Arnon Bar-David, chairman of the Histadrut, the main labor union, called on Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday to “stop the insane chaos in Israeli society.” He stopped short of threatening an imminent general strike but told union leaders: “When I feel that things have gone too far, we will use our strength.”


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