Political division deepen over laws to limit power of judiciary
For the fifth week in a row, tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities last Saturday (February 4) to protest against the government’s proposed changes to the power of the country’s judiciary.
These controversial proposals, put forward last month by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, would give the new right-wing government complete control over the appointment of judges, including those on Israel’s supreme court - the High Court. It would also allow the government to resubmit and vote through any law that the High Court had ruled was illegal.
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Opponents paint this draft legislation as a gross expansion of the powers of the executive and a neutering of the judiciary’s ability to challenge laws, including highly controversial legislation that the new coalition government is poised to bring forward. This includes exempting the Orthodox community from military service, and legalising settlement outposts on Palestinian land. They argue that, in the highly centralised Israeli political system, which has no second chamber of parliament to revise or scrutinise laws, the High Court acts as a vital check on the power of the executive. Ending the court’s power to strike down laws would therefore hand the government effectively unlimited power.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has warned that Levin’s reforms would “fundamentally change the democratic nature of the state’s governance.” The opposition leader and former prime minister Yair Lapid told crowds of demonstrators in Haifa on Saturday that he would fight in the streets, the Knesset and in the courts to “save our country, because we refuse to live in an undemocratic country.” On Wednesday hundreds of military reservists began a three-day march to the High Court in Jerusalem to protest against the government’s planned changes to the judicial system.
Warnings of the danger posed by the proposed curbs on the judiciary have also come from Israel’s friends abroad. On a visit to Paris last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu was reportedly warned by President Macron that if the plans were not changed, France and Israel would no longer have a “common conception of democracy”. Days earlier, the visiting US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken made clear his concerns over the proposed judicial shakeup, repeatedly referring to importance of the two countries’ shared democratic values in his press conference with Netanyahu.
But the increasingly virulent anti-government rhetoric inside Israel, and threats of violence, is also stoking fears that the country’s democratic system could be in peril. David Hodek, a lawyer and decorated soldier, told a conference of Israel’s Bar Association that he would not hesitate to “use live fire” if forced to live in a dictatorship. And a former combat pilot, Zeev Raz, appeared to make death threats against Netanyahu when he shared a Facebook post declaring that if a leader acts “in a dictatorial way, there’s an obligation to kill them.” Lapid and the head of the opposition National Unity Party Benny Gantz condemned Raz’s comments, and he later retracted them. But Netanyahu reacted by accusing opposition parties of incitement and themselves threatening democracy.
With each side accusing the other of undermining democracy, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog has now intervened to urge a halt to the judicial reforms to allow for negotiation and avert what he called “an internal struggle that could consume us all.” But his intervention has gone unheeded. Justice Minister Levin rejected the idea of any delay, fearful perhaps that the inherent instability of coalition governments in Israel meant a delay could mean the judicial reform bill never sees the light of day. Instead, he scheduled an initial vote in the Knesset this coming Monday. On the other side, the former Prime Minister Ehud Barak castigated Herzog as a latter-day Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who sought to appease Hitler. Barak later apologized for implicitly equating the Netanyahu government with Nazi Germany – a comparison that unsurprisingly appalled many Israelis.
In this feverish atmosphere, the findings of the latest monthly opinion poll from the Israel Democracy Institute were reassuring. A majority of respondents felt civil strife was unlikely. A greater number opposed the planned judicial changes than supported them, and most of these had voted for opposition parties in the November 2022 election. But over eighty percent felt that demonstrations were the most effective means of protest, while 51 percent backed strikes.
Leaders of the protests have called for a nationwide strike on Monday and a mass rally outside the Knesset as it votes on the judicial changes. Despite dire warnings, the dispute shows no signs yet of descending into violence.
US plan to avert new West Bank intifada
The current upsurge of violence in the Occupied Territories shows no signs of abating. On Monday, The Israeli army reported that it had killed five members of a Hamas-affiliated armed group in the Aqabat Jabr refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jericho. Hamas later admitted that the five were its members. Among the dead were reportedly two men who tried to shoot up a Jericho restaurant on January 28, an attack that failed only because their gun jammed. The army accused the group of planning further attacks.
The latest raid comes just over a week after a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem shot and killed seven people outside a synagogue in the city in the deadliest such attack in Israel since 2011. It came a day after Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians in Jenin, in what they said was an attempt to forestall an imminent attack by a local Islamic extremist cell.
US Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns, who visited the region in late January and held talks with both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, last week warned that the situation there resembled that prior to the Second Intifada – a cycle of armed clashes and suicide attacks in which a thousand Israelis and thrice that number of Palestinians died between 2000-2005. Burns warned of the “fragility” of the current security situation and the possibility of even greater violence.
Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas had announced the suspension of security cooperation with Israel, following the Jenin raid. But the Israeli press reported that Abbas had assured Burns personally that such security coordination had in fact continued, that PA security forces would continue to arrest terrorist suspects, and that full coordination would be resumed once calm was restored.
One of the problems is that the PA has gradually lost control of areas of the northern West Bank, including the cities of Jenin and Nablus, to local armed groups. In a bid to fill the resulting security vacuum in these areas, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, who also met the Palestinian and Israeli leadership last week, proposed the idea of Palestinian civilian police forces deploying in these areas, so re-establishing PA control in a way more acceptable to the local population than using paramilitary forces.
Abbas is yet to respond to this idea, though Palestinian officials complained that the proposal lacked any commitment by Israeli forces to cease raids into PA-controlled areas of the West Bank. These raids as well as settler attacks on Palestinians do nothing to calm the tension. But without some Palestinian security deployment in Jenin and other trouble spots, Israeli forces are unlikely to stop their arrest raids and the cycle of violence is set to continue.
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