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Protests continue Saturday night, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in the wake Gallant’s call for the government to halt legislation to reform the justice system. While many Israelis would like to reform the justice system, the Netanyahu government has proposed changes that would radically alter it. As a result, Israelis have taken to the streets to protest. The demonstrations have not been limited to marches in the streets, many reservists, including pilots, military intelligence and other frontline military units, have refused to participate in reserve duties. This is one of the most troubling crises in Israel’s history. In many ways, the reforms are similar in potential impact, as the Patriot Act was in the US.
To understand the crisis, it is important to understand that Israel has no constitution. Their parliamentary system legislates, but the Supreme Court has the power to strike down laws, much like in the US. But without a constitution to measure the law against, the Supreme Court is free to interpret laws while injecting their own opinion. There are so called Basic Laws, intended to be the outline of a future constitution, but as yet they have not been formally incorporated into a written document. Until now, the Basic Laws can only be changed by a supermajority vote in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. Any change could be challenged and eventually ruled upon by the Supreme Court.
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Over the past few years, political opponents of Netanyahu have used the judicial system to attack him. He, like Donald Trump, faced numerous investigations. Whether this is the genesis of Netanyahu’s call for reform, passing a law to prevent courts from removing him as the prime minister, even if convicted of a crime, certainly creates that appearance. Another change is an override clause that allows the Knesset to simply re-legislate with a simple majority, even if it appears to violate the Basic Laws. Those on the right seemingly forget that one day the left will be in power and use the same new laws against the right, much like the Patriot Act might have been a good idea in the moment, but over time has allowed the federal government to infringe upon citizens’ rights.
Whether the new laws are passed remains to be seen. There are at least four members of Netanyahu’s own party that have declared they will vote against the reforms. The attempted changes may ultimately lead to needed changes to the judicial system, but in the near term, tens of thousands of citizens are in the streets, protesting government overreach. Israelis across the political spectrum are standing together against a government that refuses to hear its own people, as the government seemingly represents itself and its own interests.
Most Israeli sense there is real danger to democracy. Brave citizens and members of the government, like the defense minister, are risking it all to stand against tyranny. There are lessons for Americans to learn, and we should carefully watch as this unfolds.
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