It is safe to say that most non-Israelis, as well as a number of Israeli citizens, are unclear what the implications of “judicial reform” mean for Israeli democracy. What is clear is a large number of Israelis are unhappy with the Likud led government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Protestors have been gathering in cities around the country for 28 weeks in numbers as high as one million objecting to sweeping changes by a government with a slim majority.
The first bill in the proposed reforms has passed the first reading of the bill by a vote of 64-56 and limits judicial review of government decisions by the test of “reasonableness”. Israel has no constitution, rather a series of Basic Laws that have been adopted over time. The idea of a “reasonableness test” is that the Judiciary can use case law to determine whether a new law, ministerial appointment or other decisions make sense.
One example of implementation of the reasonable test was when Netanyahu appointed Aryeh Deri to a ministerial post. Mr Deri has been twice convicted of felony charges for bribery, tax evasion, breach of trust, money laundering and other serious crimes. His plea deal resulted in his resignation from the Knesset and promise to never enter public life. His Shas Party won 11 seats in the 2022 election and Netanyahu appointed him Interior Minister, Minister of Health and Deputy Prime Minister. The Supreme Court ruled this violated the plea deal and Deri was forced to resign in January 2023. Under the new bill, the government could appoint Deri and the judiciary would not be able to act.
What makes this difficult for Americans to understand are the parallels between former President Trump and PM Netanyahu. Both were populist leaders that the judiciary and media went after for their political views. So many conservatives automatically back Netanyahu assuming that the current situation is just the next chapter in the persecution of a nationalist leader. In fact, the situation changed dramatically for Netanyahu and Israel in the wake of the Covid pandemic. Like in the US, many Israelis have lost faith in their government.
Imagine if the Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, decided on a simple majority to amend the Constitution. Or if you remember the “court packing” threats from a few years ago. This is essentially what the Netanyahu government is doing. But unlike in the US where we are so divided where we cannot see beyond partisan politics to oppose so drastic a measure, Israelis across the political spectrum have taken to the streets to defend democracy.
One of the most sacred duties for Israelis, reserve military service, is being disrupted by numerous reservists refusing voluntary duty. Many positions in the IDF are filled by reservists who serve more than their annual commitments. Roles like military intelligence, cyber security, the air force and other units rely on reservists to do more than their required service. They are now refusing in many cases to report, even knowing the potential risk to their nation. They see the threat to democracy no less of a threat now.
And like authoritarian governments around the world, Netanyahu’s government is employing ever increasingly desperate measures to end the protests. This past weekend, police used water cannons and mounted police to disperse peaceful demonstrators. The question is will the government yield to the will of the people or will there be an even bigger showdown that could lead to some form of civil war.
Like most in the West, we all would have believed that the police, army, judiciary and media would stand arm in arm with citizens in defense of freedom and liberty. The Covid response of most Western governments has proven us all wrong. The authoritarian tendencies of all those who are in power, in addition to acquiescence of a vast majority of citizens, led to violations of our basic civil rights. We must all be prepared to do what Israelis and French protestors are doing, or what Canadian truckers did, and stand up for our rights no matter the consequences. We are all just one vote away from the abolition of the the Constitution, backed by the permanent state, whether in Israel or the US.