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Israeli Government’s Plan to Overhaul the Judiciary Sets Off a Crisis

todayMarch 27, 2023 3

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Israel is in the throes of a grave political crisis that has ballooned in recent days to envelop crucial components of society: the military, universities and trade unions.

For weeks, protesters have taken to the streets to oppose the government’s plan to overhaul judicial rules. The discontent intensified on Sunday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired a minister who had criticized the plan for causing turmoil within the military.

Universities shuttered in protest, and union leaders are hinting of a general strike that threatens to paralyze the nation. The fallout is also stretching beyond Israel’s borders, causing unease among investors, influential American Jews and Israel’s foreign allies, including the United States.

Here’s what you need to know about the crisis:

The government wants to restrict the power of the Supreme Court.

Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the most right wing and religiously conservative in Israel’s history, says the judiciary has granted itself increased authority over the years. The government also contends the Supreme Court is not representative of the diversity of Israeli society.

In its proposed judicial changes, the government is first trying to change the makeup of a nine-member committee that selects judges for the court. The proposal would give representatives and appointees of the government an automatic majority on the committee, effectively allowing the government to choose the judges. The government also wants to curb what it calls the Supreme Court’s overreach by drastically restricting its ability to strike down laws that it deems unconstitutional.

Critics say the proposed overhaul would place unchecked power in the hands of the government of the day, remove protections afforded to individuals and minorities and deepen the divisions in an already fractured society. They also fear that Mr. Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges, could use the changes to extricate himself from his legal troubles.

Deeper ideological and cultural disputes lie behind the proposed changes.

In broad terms, the schism in Israeli society has divided people into two groups: those who want a more secular and pluralist state and those with a more religious and nationalist vision.

To its critics, the Supreme Court is seen as the last bastion of the secular, centrist elite descended from European Jewry who dominated the state during its earliest decades. Religious Jews, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, perceive the court as an obstacle to their way of life.

The court has often opposed certain privileges and financial subsidies for the ultra-Orthodox. In particular, the court rejected a special dispensation that allowed ultra-Orthodox Jews to postpone military service in favor of religious study, infuriating religious leaders. Right-wing Israelis who want to entrench Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank also see the court as an antagonist.

There is rising discontent about the overhaul from a broad spectrum of society.

The opposition has mainly been driven by secular centrists who fear the overhaul will threaten their freedoms and way of life. But there is also a growing resistance and desire for dialogue and compromise from parts of the religious right who say the government has pushed too far and too fast.

Israel’s largest trade union, which had previously tried to stay out of the fray, appeared to be on the verge of calling for a general strike on Monday, with a speech by its leader planned for late morning.

The heads of Israel’s leading universities collectively announced they would indefinitely shut their doors to protest the plan, starting Monday morning.

But perhaps the most consequential opposition to the process has come from military reservists, who play a significant role in Israel’s military capacity.

Reservists say they fear being given illegal military orders if the Supreme Court lacks the power to scrutinize government activity adequately. And they fear being charged in international courts if the Israeli justice system is perceived as being too weak to prosecute soldiers.

Military leaders have warned that a decline in reservists, who form a key part of the air force pilot corps, might soon affect the military’s operational capacity. The defense minister, Yoav Gallant, called on Saturday for a halt to the judicial changes; he was fired on Sunday by Mr. Netanyahu, whose office announced the dismissal in a one-line statement.

But worries persist among military leaders, who have privately said they worry that full-time soldiers may also begin to resign. On Sunday, the military chief of staff, Herzi Halevi, ordered all commanders to speak with their subordinates about the need to keep politics out of the military and maintain cohesion, military officials said.

The new law needs to be passed by Parliament.

The government had planned a final vote in Parliament early this week on the first part of the overhaul, the ability to pick Supreme Court judges. But after Sunday’s protests, it is unclear whether Mr. Netanyahu will go along with the hard-line members of his coalition and push through a vote. Mr. Netanyahu was said to be considering a pause in the program, but the hard-line members proceeded on Monday morning with the parliamentary measures needed to prepare the bill for a vote.

Other key elements of the overhaul are on hold until late April. They include proposals to curb what the government views as the Supreme Court’s overreach by drastically restricting its ability to strike down laws passed by Parliament and to allow the 120-seat Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions with a bare majority of 61.

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todayMarch 27, 2023 4