Israel judicial crisis: Parliament passes law limiting Supreme Court's power
Israel was hit by a political earthquake on Monday as MPs passed a law limiting the Supreme Court's power, one of a raft of judicial reforms critics say are turning the country into an autocracy.
Ahead of the vote and after, thousands of protesters in Jerusalem blocked the roads leading to Israel's parliament, the Knesset, with police using water cannons to remove them. Thousands more gathered in Tel Aviv, with protests expected throughout the night.
MP passed the bill by 64 votes to zero, after opposition lawmakers left the parliament in protest when compromise talks broke down.
The new law abolishes Israel's "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, which is seeking to overhaul the judicial system in the country.
Proponents of the plan say it is necessary to restore the balance of power between government branches, while opponents say it will remove checks and balances and undermine the independence of the judicial system.
Ironically, appeals have been lodged against the new law with the Supreme Court.
There were disagreements within the far-right coalition government's ranks leading up to the vote, with Defence Minister Yoav Gallant reportedly calling for last-minute compromise talks with the opposition.
However Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir refused the proposal, according to Haaretz.
'We have taken the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system'
- Justice Minister Yariv Levin
"We have taken the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system," Levin said following the vote.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the government “left no stone unturned until the last minute but the opposition unfortunately opposed”.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the coalition of abusing its power, and said he would petition Israel's Supreme Court against the new law.
"This is a complete breaking of the rules of the game," Lapid said. "The government and coalition can choose what direction the state goes in, but it can’t decide the character of the state."
"This is a sad day, a day of our home’s destruction, of needless hatred, and look at the coalition celebrating," he added.
Arrests and business shutdown
Demonstrators wielding Israeli flags shut off streets near the Knesset building earlier on Monday, with some chaining themselves to one another.
Footage shared on social media showed firefighters using electric handsaws to break up the human chain, while police officers were seen forcefully removing others. Two protesters were hospitalised after water cannons struck them in the head and neck, Haaretz said.
At least 19 people were arrested in the Jerusalem protest, according to police.
By Monday night, protestors had lit bonfires in downtown Tel Aviv.
Avi Dabosh, a leader of the protest movement that has been bringing Israelis to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in recent weeks, was defiant following the vote.
"In Argentina there was a slogan during the struggle against the dictatorship that said: ‘Don't mourn - organise’," he told Middle East Eye.
"There is a power in organising that, if you also manage to promote it, builds a coalition of equality and political power. You will succeed in bringing about change and correction in Israeli society. I’m proud of us!"
Dana Olmert, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, has been an active member of the protest movement for months.
“Today the first fascist law proposal passed, which will empty Israeli democracy,” she told Middle East Eye from Tel Aviv.
According to Olmert, the government intend to use the law to remove anyone that stands in their way, for instance the attorney general.
“It feels like the first step on the way to a police coup,” she said.
“There is deep, strong feeling of desperation and grief but also an expectation that the Supreme Court will reject this decision,” she added, suggesting a constitutional crisis may be on its way.
“I hope that the court wont step back and they cancel this. Meanwhile we continue to protest in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. I believe this will continue all night."
A new chapter
On Sunday, US President Joe Biden called on Israel not to rush the "divisive" reforms.
"It looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less," Biden told Israeli journalist Barak Ravid on Sunday.
“Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this - the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus."
As the bill's passage looked inevitable, there was a sharp decline in the stock market and the shekel weakened compared to the dollar.
Scores of petrol stations and shopping centres, among other businesses, were shut on Monday after the Israeli Business Forum decided to suspend business activity over the judicial reforms. The forum represents some of the country's biggest corporations and banks.
"We call on the prime minister to fulfil his duty and to understand the magnitude of the disaster that may occur," it said.
Israel has entered a new chapter in its history, said veteran political commentator Meron Rapoport. "We don’t know what it will look like, but it will definitely be dramatic," he told Middle East Eye.
After the clear disagreements between ministers over the bill, where Gallant was seen having a heated exchange with his colleagues, the government has emerged victorious but weakened, Rapoport said. Netanyahu, he noted, "looked torn between different powers".
Rapoport believes that the consequences will begin piling up: further protests and strikes, businesses refusing to pay taxes, and a loss of support from the United States.
"Biden set aside his dignity to give an interview with local Israeli media to call for the reforms to be stopped, and they didn't," he said. "It may lead to the Americans removing their protection from Israel."
With domestic issues so turbulent, the Israeli government may turn the screw on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank as a distraction, Rapoport warned, "deepening the occupation, the apartheid, and the demolitions".
Crisis of legitimacy
Yet the government nonetheless is in a crisis of legitimacy, where swathes of the population believe it is fundamentally undermining the state rather than leading it.
"We don’t see this in any democratic western country. I don’t see something similar elsewhere," Rapoport said.
Poll results reported by national broadcaster Kan found that 46 percent of Israelis opposed the amendment, while 35 percent were in favour and 19 percent undecided.
Demonstrations and strikes have taken place regularly since January in a bid to force the government to halt its judicial plan.
Protesters were given a boost recently after hundreds of reservist soldiers joined their calls.
On Friday, more than 1,100 Israeli Air Force reservists, including over 400 pilots, said in an unprecedented letter that they would suspend their volunteer reserve duty if the government plan was not scrapped.
Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the threat of reservists not showing up for duty, saying it was "akin to the destruction of democracy".
"It cannot be the case that a group within the army threatens an elected government by saying that 'if you don't act as we like, we will stop defending the country'," he said.
Earlier on Monday, Netanyahu was discharged from hospital following an operation to fit him with a pacemaker.
He was admitted to Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv on Saturday night after doctors said a heart monitor had detected "temporary arrhythmia".
On Monday night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a televised statement defending the legislation saying it was necessary "to restore a degree of balance between the branches of government” and said he was open to continuing negotiations with the opposition for the rest of the legislation - hoping to reach a deal by end November.
He also called out military reservists who have threatened not to report to duty in opposition to the overhaul. “Our brothers and sisters in the reserves, keep IDF service out of the political argument,” he said.
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid dismissed the address, saying, “Netanyahu’s statement tonight is another lie, the sole purpose of which is to reduce pressure by the Americans and put the protests to sleep."
He said his promise to seek compromise was empty because he was "not really" Israel’s prime minister but "a prisoner" to far-right lawmakers in his coalition.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.