Skip to main content

Israel judicial crisis: Parliament passes key part of bill. Here's what you need to know

Israeli politicians have passed the first part of the government's plan to weaken the Supreme Court, defying months of massive street protests
Israeli forces use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem on 24 July 2023 (AFP)
Israeli forces in Jerusalem use a water cannon to disperse demonstrators blocking the entrance of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, on 24 July 2023 (AFP)

Israeli lawmakers passed a key bill as part of the government's controversial judicial overhaul on Monday, despite the legislation sparking some of the biggest protests in Israeli history.

Members of parliament passed the so-called "reasonableness" bill by 64 votes to zero, after opposition lawmakers left the parliament, or Knesset, in protest.

The bill would see the abolition of the "reasonableness standard", eliminating the Supreme Court's ability to block government decisions it deems unreasonable.

It's part of a package of bills proposed by the government earlier this year, seeking to overhaul the judicial system in the country. 

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made the judicial overhaul a priority since coming into office earlier this year.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Right-wingers in Israel have long complained about the ability of the judiciary to overrule bills passed by the Knesset, claiming it has a left-wing bias and is too willing to back the rights of minorities over the majority.

The proposed changes have sparked 29 consecutive weeks of protests inside and outside of Israel, with former Israeli officials and Israel's staunchest ally, the United States, warning against the "divisive" overhaul.

What are the changes?

Netanyahu's ultra-nationalist coalition government has repeatedly said the changes are meant to restore power to elected officials.

The legislation passed on Monday would prevent the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions on the basis that they are "unreasonable".

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court revoked the appointment of Aryeh Deri, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, from serving in Netanyahu's government on the grounds that it was "extremely unreasonable."

Ten of 11 judges disqualified Deri from serving, citing his conviction last year for tax offences.

Proponents say the current "reasonability" standard gives unelected judges excessive powers over decision-making by elected officials.

But critics of the government say it removes a key element of the court's oversight powers and opens the way for corruption and improper appointments.

Protesters also maintain that the changes are an assault on checks and balances and could pave the way for the evisceration of minority rights, foster corruption, and damage the economy.

In a speech on Thursday, Netanyahu dismissed accusations as absurd and said the changes wouldn't affect Israeli democracy.

"This is an attempt to mislead you over something that has no basis in reality," he said.

Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption and the judicial overhaul could enable him to evade conviction or see his case dismissed. 

With Israel having no constitution and little separation between the executive and legislative branches, the Supreme Court is seen as the most effective check on government power.

Other proposals that are yet to be passed include a bill that would allow a simple majority in parliament to overturn Supreme Court decisions.

Another would give parliament the final say in selecting judges. 

Have Israelis and Palestinians reacted in same way?

The bills have sparked months of demonstrations, with almost a quarter of Israelis participating in some form of protest.

According to an opinion poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, two-thirds of Israelis believe the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws that are incompatible with Israel's Basic Laws.

Ratcheting up the pressure on Netanyahu's government has also been the thousands of military reservists who have declared their refusal to serve if the bills are passed.

Israel's Supreme Court rarely favours Palestinians. Under reforms, it never will
Read More »

In a letter addressed to soldiers on Sunday, Israeli military chief Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi called the cracks emerging as a result of the protests, "dangerous."

"If we will not be a strong and cohesive military, if the best do not serve in the IDF (Israeli army), we will no longer be able to exist as a country in the region."

After Monday's vote, opposition leader Yair Lapid said he would file a petition with the Supreme Court on Tuesday to block the law, and urged military reservists not to refuse to serve.

"Don't stop serving as long as we don't know what the ruling will be," Lapid said.

The overwhelming majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel, however, have seldom attended the protests, and argue that discriminatory laws will continue to be passed against them whatever the outcome.

"For Palestinian citizens of Israel, the judicial system has never been seen as one that offers any protection against discriminatory laws and a system that privileges one group of people over another," Abeer Baker, a Palestinian human rights lawyer, wrote in an op-ed for Middle East Eye last month.

Netanyahu's far-right government has intensified deadly raids in Palestinian territories, killing at least 197 Palestinians, including 34 children, so far this year.

What's the international reaction?

Many of Israel's traditional allies have criticised the proposed legislation and called for either a compromise or the proposals to be done away with entirely.

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Netanyahu earlier this year that Israel risked "disconnecting" itself from democracy with the legislation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also said he was concerned over the legislation and that the judiciary was a "high democratic good".

But US President Joe Biden has been the most outspoken and said on Sunday that Israel should work to build broad consensus for legal reform.

"From the perspective of Israel's friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less," Biden said in a statement to the Axios news website.

Last week, Biden issued a statement to The New York Times, saying: "This is obviously an area about which Israelis have strong views, including in an enduring protest movement that is demonstrating the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which must remain the core of our bilateral relationship.

"Finding consensus on controversial areas of policy means taking the time you need," he said. "For significant changes, that’s essential. So my recommendation to Israeli leaders is not to rush. I believe the best outcome is to continue to seek the broadest possible consensus here."

In a statement on Monday, a Biden administration official said it was "unfortunate" that the Israeli parliament ratified a part of the judicial overhaul plan.

"We believe that for major democratic changes, you need to work for consensus," a White House National Security Council spokesperson said.

"We urge Israeli leaders to work toward a consensus-based approach through political dialogue."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.