Israel: Weekly roundup

David Powell
David Powell
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President’s appeal for calm falls on deaf ears

Last Sunday (Feb 12), Israeli President Isaac Herzog went on national television to make an impassioned plea for compromise over the government’s controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary. He warned that the country was on the brink of “societal and constitutional collapse” and that the dispute was pushing the country towards “the abyss.”

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The following day, tens of thousands of people from across Israel – 90,000 according to police figures, while organisers claimed up to 300,000 - travelled to Jerusalem to hold a mass protest outside the Knesset (parliament) over the government’s plans to curb the power of the country’s High Court, following six consecutive weeks of mass demonstrations against these plans in cities across the country.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 11, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)
Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 11, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)

As demonstrators massed outside the Knesset, there were stormy scenes inside. Amid hurling of abuse and attempts to evict lawmakers, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee eventually resolved to allow the first stage of the government’s legislation to go forward to be voted on by the full Knesset – possibly as early as next Monday (Feb 20).

These laws would hand the government control over the committee that selects judges in all the country’s courts; and severely limit the power of the High Court to strike down laws passed by parliament. The committee acted in defiance of the president’s appeal for whole process to be paused.

President Herzog clearly shares the fears of many Israelis that the agenda of the new coalition government, far from strengthening democracy - through a rebalancing of the powers of the judiciary and the executive, as it claims - instead risks undermining it. Warning of possible violence and bloodshed, Herzog put forward his own five-point plan for reform of the judicial system and called on both sides to work for compromise. Yair Lapid, a leading opposition figure and former prime minister, responded by saying that the only way compromise could be reached would be if the government agreed to halt its legislation for two months. But those driving through the government’s agenda - Justice Minister Yariv Levin and the powerful head of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Simcha Rothman – dismissed out of hand calls for a delay, which they said were simply an opposition ploy to wreck their legislation plan.

Lawyers and public figures have warned that the curbs to the power of the High Court, including preventing it from striking down legislation, would allow the right-wing coalition government to force through such laws as annexing the West Bank, an idea supported by several parties in the coalition. On Thursday (Feb 16) over 400 former security officials, including ex-police and intelligence chiefs, signed a public letter to President Herzog urging him not to agree to any laws that contradicted the rule of law and judicial independence, claiming the government’s plans constituted a “judicial revolution” and a “critical blow” to Israel’s democratic values.

Simcha Rothman, a leading member of the Religious Zionism party as well as the head of the constitutional committee, sets little store by such claims, arguing that he and the government are acting to defend democracy, not to undermine it. Critics of the government’s legal reforms say - including handing the government a majority in the committee that elects judges - it undermines the independence of the judiciary.

But Rothman insists that in a democracy the people’s elected representatives should choose judges. He dismisses the street protests as unrepresentative of Israeli public opinion, claiming the government has the democratic mandate to force through long-planned reforms to an over powerful judiciary.

Such a deep ideological divide over whether the judiciary should manage itself or be subject to the control of parliament – and in Israel this effectively means the government - is not one that can be easily bridged. This, combined with the deep lack of trust between the government and opposition parties, indicates that any compromise is unlikely. The government will doubtless push ahead with its plan to remove any judicial opposition to its legislative programme, while opposition within the Knesset and on the streets is likely to grow. A recent poll by the country’s Channel 12 station found that 60 per cent of Israelis want either a delay or a complete halt to the government’s judicial changes. Only one in four said they wanted to see the process go ahead without delay.

Israel faces UN sanction over settlement extension plan

The body of a Palestinian man reportedly killed by Israeli settlers is transported in an ambulance, in the town of Qarawat Bani Hassan in the occupied West Bank province of Salfit on February 11, 2023. (File photo: AFP)
The body of a Palestinian man reportedly killed by Israeli settlers is transported in an ambulance, in the town of Qarawat Bani Hassan in the occupied West Bank province of Salfit on February 11, 2023. (File photo: AFP)

One of the reasons why the government is so keen on limiting the powers of the High Court is that the principle right-wing parties that make up the coalition, Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit, are in favour of building more West Bank settlements. The government’s security cabinet decided on Feb 12 to legalise nine settlement outposts in the West Bank and to install around 10,000 new settler homes there, reportedly as a response to two recent terrorist attacks in East Jerusalem. The High Court is likely to challenge this decision to legalise the settlement outposts on the grounds that they are built on Palestinian land. So limiting the power of the court to strike down such legislation would allow this and other settlement expansion plans to go ahead unchallenged.

While seeking to dismantle internal legal hurdles to its latest settlement expansion and outpost legalisation, the Israeli government also faces severe criticism from abroad, including from its main ally, the US. Last Tuesday (Feb 14) the foreign ministers of the US, UK, France, and Germany warned that such unilateral actions would only exacerbate tensions and make a two-state solution harder to achieve. A string of senior US diplomats have visited the region in recent weeks to urge both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to refrain from such unilateral actions, which they argue is stoking the current cycle of violence. One of these, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, issued a rare personal condemnation of the Israeli move.

The UAE has now drafted a UN Security Council resolution that calls for an immediate halt to all settlement activity as a breach of international law. This puts the Biden administration in an awkward position. While it strongly opposes settlement building and expansion as destabilising and provocative, it is against the PA’s policy of using the UN to pressure Israel to make concessions. It has responded to the draft resolution by urging the PA and its allies to accept a non-binding statement condemning the Israeli settlement plan.

Whether the UN Security Council passes a resolution or simply a statement, it is unlikely to make much difference on the ground. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, head of the Religious Zionism party, dismissed the US criticism as “disagreements … between friends,” while far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he was seeking to legalise “many more” settlement outposts. Internal opposition in Israel, not outside pressure, will count more in determining the policy direction of this government.

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