On March 27(local time), large-scale protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul took place in major cities including Tel Aviv, Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people participated, demanding the abolition of the judicial overhaul. The 12-week-long mass protest intensified after the dismissal of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the first government official who publicly called for a freeze on the legislation of the proposal. Israeli citizens who participated in the protest strongly opposed Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, saying that it seriously undermines democracy and is an insult to the democratic principles upheld since the country’s founding. Israel’s largest trade union began a general strike, resulting in the actual cessation of take-offs of airplanes, and the Israel Medical Association also stated that they would suspend medical services. Thousands of Israeli army reservists also declared their opposition to the judicial overhaul and refused to serve, and even active-duty soldiers were reportedly shaken by the plan. As the anti-overhaul resistance intensified, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog issued a statement urging Netanyahu’s government to immediately halt the legislative procedure for the sake of national unity. The United States, traditional ally of Israel, also expressed concern. President Joe Biden said, “Hopefully the prime minister will act in a way that he can work out some genuine compromise. That remains to be seen.” As domestic and international pressure intensified, Netanyahu announced in a television speech on the night of March 27 that he had decided to delay the legislation for the judicial overhaul in order to prevent national division, namely civil war, and give time for discussion. However, according to Netanyahu’s statement, the pause of legislation for the judicial overhaul was only temporary, and there’s a growing concern because it is only postponed until the next session of the Knesset(Israel’s parliament). Netanyahu’s coalition still adheres to its stance that they will complete the legislation for the judicial overhaul in the next session even if mutual consent fails.
The judicial overhaul, controversial for the recession of democracy, aims to curb the power of the judiciary while giving the government far more sway. According to the packages of the bill, the Knesset could nullify the rulings of the Supreme Court by a simple majority vote. In Israel, there is no constitutional court, and the Supreme Court decides whether legislation passed by the parliament violates the “Basic Law,” which serves as Israel’s constitution. However, if the judicial overhaul is completed, the Supreme Court would lose its power to supervise the legislature. Furthermore, the government would be able to appoint judges according to its own preferences. The cabinet and the ruling party would be able to recommend a majority of the judicial selection committee members, allowing the government to exert substantial control over judicial appointments. Netanyahu said that “Democracy means checks and balances between the three branches of legislative, the executive and the judicial. In Israel, over the last 20 years, the balance has been taken off the rails because the judiciary wields too much power. I absolutely will always defend the independence of the judiciary and the way that’s achieved in all democracies in which judges are appointed by elected officials. The reforms would restore the correct balance between the branches.” Professor Sung Il-kwang from the Center for Middle East & Islamic Studies at Korea University pointed out that there are hidden purposes behind these attempts at judicial overhaul. Professor Sung said, “The ultra-Orthodox Jewish and religious Zionism parties are behind this judicial coup. Their motive for pushing this judicial coup is to curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General, so that they cannot repeal the bills they are pushing, and to pass bills that suit their interests. Netanyahu may lose his position if he does not accept the demands of his far-right coalition partners.” In last year’s early election in Israel, the Likud party led by Benjamin Netanyahu formed the 6th Netanyahu coalition by joining hands with ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist parties to secure a majority of parliament. Netanyahu, who stands his ongoing corruption trial, has joined forces with far-right parties to continue his political life. The oppositions and anti-overhaul demonstrators see their attempts at judicial overhaul as the murkiest scam to evade prosecution in the PM’s trial and ram a bill promoted by the far-right coalition, such as expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank of the Jordan River, which is likely to be found unconstitutional.
The judicial overhaul is being criticized for completely diminishing the judiciary’s authority to check the legislature, and seriously imperiling the stable democracy of Israel, which is considerably embedded and rarely seen in the Middle East. Professor Koo Bon-sang from the Dept. of Politics and International Relations at CBNU expressed concern that the bill could be the first step toward an authoritarian regime, beyond the recession of democracy. Prof. Koo said, “The protection of personal liberty and rights, as well as the rule of law, is among the most important elements of liberal democracy, which is one core component of modern democracy. In particular, the rule of law is properly realized through checks and balances between the legislature, judiciary, and other institutions against the enormous executive authority. Recently, authoritarian rulers seize power through elections rather than coup d’état, but they usually begin by overriding the judiciary. Once the judiciary is controlled, they consolidate authoritarian rule through media control and revision to the election and political systems. This bill could remove the first safeguard to prevent Israel from becoming an authoritarian regime.”
The judicial overhaul is expected to have not only a local impact within Israel but also worldwide, including its neighboring, Middle Eastern countries. Professor Sung predicts that Israel’s judicial overhaul could lead to strong friction with Arab countries and even its traditional ally, the U.S. He says, “If the judicial overhaul passes and Israel pursues bills or executive orders that expand settlements in the West Bank of Jordan River or bring the control of the Temple Mount, which Palestine hold, to Israel, it will provoke strong opposition from not only Palestine but also the whole Arab world. This could also lead to the possibility of armed conflicts with Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Sung also forecasts that “The United States strongly opposes judicial reform, so there may also be diplomatic friction with the U.S.”
Even though Netanyahu has decided to halt legislation on judicial overhaul until the next session starting on April 30, to prevent national division, the controversy still continues. Even after the PM’s statement, Israeli citizens continue to demand complete abolition. Accordingly, on April 1, protests against judicial overhaul took place throughout the country, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Opposition leader Yair Lapid expressed concern, saying, “We are still not lowering our guard. The possibility of pushing the judicial overhaul still remains.” In addition, there is another controversy that the PM promised to establish a “National Guard” in exchange for allowing the postponement of legislation to Itamar Ben Gvir, the Minister of National Security. Ben Gvir, extremist and leader of the hard-right party, has warned that he will collapse the coalition if Netanyahu halts the judicial overhaul legislation. The plan to establish a National Guard was announced two days after Netanyahu’s statement of postponement, and the Minister of National Security, Ben Gvir, took the rein of the National Guard, according to the plan. Professor Sung said, “This National Guard is likely to be deployed for operations desired by Ben Gvir. Currently, the police are not complying with Ben Gvir’s demands, but Ben Gvir could use the National Guard to control Palestinian residents evicted from Jerusalem or Arab residents with Israeli citizenship. The National Guard could be used as a paramilitary organization for a far-right politician’s profit to oppress Palestinian residents.”
There are still doubts about whether the far-right coalition and the opposition can reach a proper compromise on judicial overhaul. However, a hopeful perspective on this issue still remains. Professor Koo said, “Since Netanyahu’s attempt to judicial overhaul, the biggest protests in Israeli history took place, with various political groups coming together. The U.S. also obviously expressed concerns about these attempts, so it may not be necessary to view it only pessimistically.” Furthermore, Prof. Koo suggests that people can grasp the implications of this issue. He said, “Since the mid-2000s, democracy has been threatened worldwide, and it is worth noting that modern authoritarian systems mainly begin with the breakdown of the judiciary, which can control the mighty executive power.”
By Shim Yun-seop | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Park Su-min | email@example.com