Israel: Parliament votes on a key measure of controversial judicial reform

The Israeli parliament voted on Monday, July 24, to pass a key measure of a judicial reform project launched by the right-wing government that has been at the heart of a massive protest movement that has raised concerns among foreign allies. The measure, which aims to limit the possibility of the Supreme Court invalidating a government decision, was approved by 64 delegates out of a total of 120 from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who took part in the vote after being released from the hospital where he was admitted to have a pacemaker fitted, on Monday evening described parliament’s approval of the measure as “a necessary democratic step”. “The aim of this move is to restore the balance between powers (…), we voted (for this measure) so that the elected government can implement a policy according to the decision of the majority of citizens”, he confirmed during a televised address.

Opposition politicians boycotted the vote, some shouting “shame, shame”. Police had shortly before used water cannons to disperse hundreds of protesters who had blocked the entrance to parliament.

The measure, the first of the reforms to become law, prevents the Supreme Court from assessing the “reasonableness” of a government decision and invalidating it. It was approved at the first reading on 11 July. This so-called “rationality” clause forced Benjamin Netanyahu to dismiss from office Eri Deri, the number two in the government, who was found guilty of tax evasion in January after a Supreme Court intervention.

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Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who led last-minute talks between the opposition and the government to reach an agreement, spoke of a “national emergency”. The government-backed reform, which includes ultra-Orthodox and far-right Jewish parties, aims to increase the power of elected officials compared to magistrates.

The government believes this is necessary to ensure a better balance of power, but its critics see this as a threat to democracy. The popular protest, which has brought together thousands of protesters every week since January, intensified as voting drew closer.

international reactions

On Sunday, US President Joe Biden urged his ally Israel not to rush reform, which according to him is “increasingly divisive”. “There is no point in hasty (reforms) for Israeli leaders, the goal should be to bring people together and build a consensus,” he said. In a statement on Monday, US acting spokeswoman Karin Jean-Pierre called for “broad consensus building” on the subject, saying “it is regrettable that today’s vote was held with such a small majority.” Which has given rise to a huge protest movement in Israel.

“As a longtime friend of Israel, President Biden has recognized publicly and privately that major changes to a democracy must have the broadest possible consensus,” the spokesperson wrote. The United States, Israel’s main ally, “continues to support efforts by the President of Israel (Isaac Herzog, editor’s note) and other Israeli leaders to find common ground”, without mentioning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Biden welcomed President Herzog to the White House last week.

Germany’s head of diplomacy, Annalena Bierbock, underlined the importance of “independence of justice” during an interview with her Israeli counterpart this weekend, a spokeswoman in Berlin said. Mr. Netanyahu spoke on Sunday of continuing “efforts to complete the reform (…) and reach consensus” with the opposition.

The German government is following with “great concern” the “growing” tensions within Israeli society, a foreign ministry source told AFP after Israel’s parliament voted on a key measure of a controversial judicial reform project. The source “expressed great regret” at the failure of last-minute talks led by Israeli President Isaac Herzog to reach an agreement between the opposition and the government. And he invited the Israeli government to “make its contribution” to reach a “consensus” on the remaining text.

The protests attracted Israelis from all walks of life.

Behind the plan, Justice Minister Yariv Levin said the government had chosen a “cautious” approach. “We are not repealing the ‘reasonableness’ clause, but we are reducing its use so that a judge’s personal opinion is not expressed at the expense of the will of the people,” he told lawmakers. Just after the vote, Mr Levin said he wanted to “reach an agreement” on continuing with the project, because “it is in the interest of the nation”.

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Critics of the prime minister, who is on trial for corruption, accuse him of wanting to use the reform to reduce a possible verdict against him. The head of the Histadrut trade union center, Arnon Bar David, assured on Monday that “any unilateral progress in reform will have serious consequences”, threatening a “general strike if necessary”.

“Today, the first law to overthrow Israeli democracy will probably be passed in parliament,” said Schaaf Kushinsky, a 34-year-old high-tech worker who came to protest near the Knesset on Monday. He said, “It will give unlimited power to the government. It is a gateway to dictatorship and that is why we are here, we are fighting for our democracy.”

Other provisions also cause discontent, such as modifying the procedure for appointing judges, which has already been adopted by the delegates during the first reading.

In the context of increasing Israeli-Palestinian violence, demonstrations have attracted people from all political and social backgrounds, secular or religious, peace activists, blue-collar workers or technology sector workers, but also army reservists. “I do everything in my power to democratize,” said Avital Mesterman, a 42-year-old teacher who came from Tel Aviv to demonstrate in Jerusalem. She added that she “gives an optimistic thank you to everyone here”.

(with AFP)


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