Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has passed a controversial bill that would limit the power of the Supreme Court to overturn government decisions. The bill, which is part of a broader judicial reform plan proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition, has sparked widespread protests and criticism from opposition parties, civil society groups, and international allies.
What is the bill and why is it controversial? The bill, known as the “reasonableness standard” bill, would abolish the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions on the grounds that they are “unreasonable”. This means that the court would only be able to review the legality of government actions, not their rationality or proportionality.
Supporters of the bill argue that it is necessary to restore the balance between the executive and the judicial branches, and to prevent unelected judges from interfering with the will of the elected majority. They claim that the Supreme Court has overstepped its role and become too activist and politicized, often siding with left-wing causes and minority rights over national interests and security.
Opponents of the bill contend that it is an assault on democracy and the rule of law, and that it would undermine the checks and balances that protect human rights and civil liberties in Israel. They warn that the bill would enable the government to enact arbitrary and discriminatory policies without judicial oversight, and that it would erode public trust in the justice system.
The bill is also seen as part of Netanyahu’s personal agenda to evade prosecution on corruption charges, which he denies. The Supreme Court has been a thorn in his side, rejecting several of his attempts to delay or dismiss his trial. Critics accuse him of trying to weaken the court’s independence and influence its composition in his favor. How did the bill pass and what was the reaction?
The bill passed its first reading in the Knesset on Monday, July 24, 2023, by a vote of 64-0. The opposition parties boycotted the vote and walked out of the plenary hall in protest, shouting “shame” and “government of destruction”. They accused Netanyahu and his allies of trampling on democracy and betraying the values of Israel’s founding fathers.
The vote was preceded by a heated debate, in which Netanyahu defended the bill as a “historic” reform that would restore “the balance between democracy and law”. He also offered to resume negotiations with the opposition to reach a compromise on the remaining parts of the judicial reform plan, which include changing the way judges are appointed and limiting their tenure.
The opposition leader, Yair Lapid, rejected Netanyahu’s offer as a “lie” and a “trick”, and vowed to continue fighting against his “destructive” agenda. He said that Netanyahu was not interested in dialogue or compromise, but only in saving himself from justice. He also called on Israelis to join the protests against the bill and to demand new elections.
The vote also triggered a massive demonstration outside the Knesset building, where thousands of protesters gathered to express their anger and frustration. They waved Israeli flags and signs with slogans such as “Save democracy”, “Stop fascism”, and “Bibi go home”. They also clashed with security forces, who used water cannons and tear gas to disperse them.
The vote also drew condemnation from international actors, including Israel’s closest ally, the United States. The Biden administration said it was “deeply concerned” by the bill and its implications for Israel’s democracy and human rights. It urged Netanyahu to reconsider his plans and to engage in dialogue with all stakeholders.
What are the next steps? The bill still needs to pass two more readings in the Knesset before it becomes law. However, it is expected to face more resistance and challenges from both inside and outside parliament. The opposition parties have vowed to use all legal means to block or delay its passage, including filing petitions to the Supreme Court itself. They have also announced plans to hold more protests and rallies across the country.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu faces growing pressure from his own coalition partners, who have expressed reservations or disagreements about some aspects of his judicial reform plan. Some of them have warned him not to jeopardize their cooperation on other issues, such as security, economy, and religion. Netanyahu also faces mounting discontent within his own party, Likud, where some members have accused him of putting his personal interests above those of the party and the country.