Protesters Head to Jerusalem as Israel’s Leaders Look to Rein in Judges
JERUSALEM — Jerusalem braced for a new wave of protests on Monday as Israel’s far-right government pushed forward with a divisive plan for a judicial overhaul that critics say will weaken and politicize the country’s courts and undermine its democratic foundations.
As protesters blocked roads and slow-moving convoys headed to Jerusalem from across Israel for what were expected to be major protests in the city for the second Monday running, Parliament was preparing for the first phase of voting on two bills aimed at curbing judicial oversight and giving politicians more influence over the courts.
One bill would change the makeup of a nine-member committee that selects judges to reduce the influence of legal professionals on the body and give representatives and appointees of the government an automatic majority. The change would effectively allow the government of the day to choose judges.
The other bill would strip the Supreme Court of its power to strike down basic laws passed by Parliament.
Advocates say the changes are needed to curb the influence of an overreaching judiciary that has granted itself increased authority over the years. They also say the measures would shift power away from an unelected bureaucratic elite — the judiciary — in favor of elected officials and governments that reflect the will of the people.
Israel’s New Far-Right Government
Benjamin Netanyahu has returned to power at the helm of the most right-wing and religiously conservative administration ever in Israeli history.
- A Hard-Right Agenda: Israel’s new government has moved quickly on several agenda items that would weaken the judiciary, entrench Israeli control of the West Bank and strengthen ultraconservative Jews.
- Judicial Overhaul: The government is pressing ahead with a far-reaching overhaul of Israel’s judicial system, setting off mass protests by those who say it will destroy the country’s democratic foundations.
- Rising Tensions: The roots of the recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank predate the new government, but the administration’s ministers and goals are fueling tensions.
- Ultra-Orthodox Parties: To preserve his new government, Mr. Netanyahu has made a string of promises to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox parties. Their push for greater autonomy has potentially broad-ranging implications.
Critics say the proposed overhaul would place unchecked power in the hands of the government, remove protections afforded to individuals and minorities and deepen divisions in an already fractured society. They also fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges, could use the changes to extricate himself from his legal troubles.
The attorney general has barred the prime minister from any involvement in the new legislation because of a conflict of interest. Mr. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and says he does not have any personal interest in judicial change.
After a first reading, bills must go back to a committee for further discussions, then return to the floor for two more votes before passing into law, a process that can take weeks or months. But a deeply split Israel is already in turmoil over the plan, with opponents alarmed at the speed with which it is moving forward, just weeks after the governing coalition — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israeli history — came to power.
Mass protests have been taking place on Saturday nights in Tel Aviv for seven consecutive weeks and have spread around the country. Last Monday about 100,000 protesters filled the streets around Parliament and the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, according to estimates in the Israeli news media, though organizers put the number at more than double that.
The coalition leaders have pushed for a hasty first vote on the bills, defying a plea from Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, to pause the legislative process and allow room for a national dialogue and compromise. The president, a mostly ceremonial figure, has little executive power, but his voice is meant to be unifying and carries moral authority.
The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, a centrist, asked for a 60-day hiatus in the legislative process as a condition for any negotiations. The politicians driving the process have expressed some willingness to talk but have so far refused to halt their work even for a day.
“We won’t stop the legislation now, but there is more than enough time until the second and third readings to hold an earnest and real dialogue and to reach understandings,” Yariv Levin, the justice minister, told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper on the eve of the initial vote.
But critics have dismissed the government’s position as disingenuous, arguing that once the bills have passed a first vote, only cosmetic changes will be possible.
Many Israelis, including some of those protesting, agree that some kind of judicial change is needed, but opinion polls suggest that a majority want it to be the result of dialogue and do not support the government plan in its current form.
The domestic tensions are also causing friction between the Israeli government and its closest ally, the United States. In a rare intervention in Israeli political affairs, President Biden, like Mr. Herzog, has called for efforts to reach a consensus.
The American ambassador to Israel, Thomas R. Nides, over the weekend told The Axe Files, a CNN podcast, “We’re telling the prime minister, as I tell my kids, pump the brakes, slow down, try to get a consensus, bring the parties together.”
He said he had told Mr. Netanyahu, “We can’t spend time with things we want to work on together if your backyard’s on fire,” referring to the U.S. support that Israel is seeking on issues such as curbing Iran’s nuclear program and Mr. Netanyahu’s ambitions to establish diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
Amichai Chikli, an Israeli cabinet minister responsible for relations with the Jewish diaspora, responded bluntly to Mr. Nides in an interview with Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, on Sunday. “I tell the American ambassador, you pump the brakes,” he said, adding: “Mind your own business.”