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Reforming political power in Israel


WORLD Radio - Reforming political power in Israel

The State of Israel is facing an internal conflict over the relationship between the legislature and Israel’s Supreme Court

Israelis protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government to overhaul the judicial system outside the Knesset, Israel's parliament in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023 Associated Press Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: The balance of political power in Israel.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: Almost seventy-five years after its founding, the State of Israel is facing an internal conflict over the relationship between the legislature and Israel’s Supreme Court.

PROTESTERS: We have a new government that is losing its values, and democracy is collapsing in front of our eyes.

A protester heard there in audio from Global News. Inside Israel’s parliament on Tuesday, lawmakers brought a set of controversial proposals to the floor that would restructure the balance of powers.

AUDIO: [Sound from deliberations]

BUTLER: Proponents of the bill say that change is needed to reign in the expansive powers of the judicial branch. Opponents warn that the legislative branch is expanding its own powers in ways that threaten the integrity of Israel’s democracy. But what’s going on beneath the rhetoric?

BROWN: Emma Freire is working on an article for WORLD Magazine explaining what’s happening in Israel, and we spoke with her about the controversy.

First off, what exactly would the proposed legislation do?

EMMA FREIRE, REPORTER: Well, this legislation, if it’s enacted, would bring quite a number of changes to the Israeli judiciary, but the two most significant ones are, first, that the Israeli parliament would be able to overrule a judicial review decision made by the Israeli Supreme Court. At the moment, the Israeli Supreme Court, like the US Supreme Court, can overturn laws or executive decisions that it deems unconstitutional. Under Netanyahu’s proposed reform, the Israeli parliament could overturn a Supreme Court decision with a simple majority vote. So that’s a big change. Now, the second biggest change would be to the way judges are appointed. Currently, judges are chosen by a committee, which is made up of politicians, Supreme Court justices, and members of the bar association. And with the way the committee functions, Supreme Court justices effectively have veto power over appointments. So this legislation would overhaul the committee to ensure that the ruling coalition would be able to appoint any judges it wants.

BUTLER: Netanyahu has been prime minister before, but he’s never pushed for this kind of reform. Why is this legislation being proposed now?

FREIRE: Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for around 15 years in the past. He’s the longest serving Prime Minister in Israeli history. And in the past, he’s been a defender of the judiciary. But critics say that the reason he has changed his direction is that he is currently on trial for corruption. And then the members of Netanyahu’s right wing coalition all have their own reasons for wanting to weaken the judiciary, which they perceive as being left-wing. So I talked to Dan Arbell, he’s scholar in residence at the Center for Israeli Studies at American University, and he told me about the political dynamics driving this legislation.

DAN ARBELL: Different parties that are part of the coalition have come to the realization that they need this reform for their own interests. The Haredi, the ultra-orthodox, want this because they want to stop general conscription of young ultra-orthodox men into the military; the ultra-nationalists want it because they want the Supreme Court not to intervene or not to limit the ability to expand settlements and build new settlements in the West Bank. Conservatives in the ruling party and the Likud want to weaken the role of the Supreme Court and its ability to nullify legislation and executive orders. This is a convergence of interests that we're talking about.

BROWN: Are the critics right that this move will weaken Israel’s democracy?

FREIRE: Well, that depends on who you ask. Some people say that the Israeli Supreme Court has far too much power and reform is needed because you can't have an elected parliament being radically constrained by an unelected court. So this is what Neil Rogachevsky of Yeshiva University told me about the court’s power. He said, “If you ask me, people have some grounds for complaint. The Israeli Supreme Court has insane legislative power beyond the scope of any activist judge in the United States wildest dreams. Anyone can bring up a complaint, even if it’s not a tort, meaning they’re not affected by it. They can have ideological opposition to a policy of the government and they can go to the Supreme Court, and it’s within their power to cancel a government policy in this way.” However, other people say that this destroys the system of checks and balances, and it concentrates too much power in the executive branch. This is what Dan Arbell told me about his fears.

ARBELL: These are all very scary options that we’re looking at if this reform is pushed through without changes, and without any willingness to conduct a dialogue and reach compromises between those who support it and those who oppose it.

BUTLER: So what’s next for this legislation and the State of Israel?

FREIRE: Well, the proposed legislation is making its way through the normal process in the Israeli parliament. Netanyahu’s coalition has 64 seats out of 120, so they are in a position to pass this, and that kind of sets up a worst-case scenario where the bill is passed and then the Israeli Supreme Court strikes it down. And some people fear that if that happened, there might be violence in the streets. There’s even talk of a civil war. So tensions are very high over this bill. There have already been massive street protests over it and foreign leaders, including President Joe Biden, have criticized the bill. And the President of Israel—and that’s a ceremonial role in their country—has been calling for a compromise. But I talked to Neil Rogachevsky of Yeshiva University and he says Netanyahu is far too practical of a politician to really let the situation get out of hand.

BROWN: Let’s hope that’s the case. Emma Friere is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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