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Police officers use water cannons to evacuate protesters from a main road on 24 July 2023 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Protests Erupt in Israel as Legislature Passes First Judicial Reform Act

Israel’s legislature passed a highly contentious measure on Monday that limits the power of the nation’s Supreme Court, reigniting major political unrest and protests in several cities that lasted well into the night and threatening to disrupt everything from basic services to medical care to national security.

Authorities used water canons to try to disperse crowds in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and evicted a large gathering of protestors who had been camping outside the legislature for weeks. Through the morning on Tuesday, only small, isolated pockets of protestors persisted.

The legislation passed the 120-member Knesset 64-0 after opposition lawmakers boycotted the vote. Israel does not have a written constitution. Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other conservative leaders who allied to create a narrow ruling majority say the country needs judicial reforms because the courts have too much power and have increasingly used that power to overrule the will of duly elected political representatives.

Specifically, the new law removes the Supreme Court’s power to cancel government actions and appointments that the court deems unreasonable.

“Critics of the overall judicial overhaul package proposed by the government fear it could end up, if enacted, accelerating West Bank settlement construction, with some or all of that region annexed;” The New York Times reported, “curbing the rights of non-Jews; expanding the power of rabbinical leaders; and allowing discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people and women.”

The law is only the first of several planned judicial overhauls. In addition to eliminating the court’s power to end actions based on the reasonableness test, the BBC reported the conservatives also want to:

  • Weaken the power of the Supreme Court to review or throw out laws, enabling a simple majority of one in the Knesset to overrule such decisions.

  • Have a decisive say over who becomes a judge, including in the Supreme Court, by increasing its representation on the committee which appoints them.

  • Scrap the requirement for ministers to obey the advice of their legal advisers—guided by the attorney general—which they currently have to do by law.

Netanyahu said Monday night that the Knesset would not move forward yet on the rest of the proposed changes, explaining that he would pause for several months so that he could build a wider base of support for the reforms.

The crowd who protested Monday was the largest since protests first started in March. The first quarter of 2023 protests led Netanyahu to delay the reforms. After months of trying and failing to build broader support for the proposals, proponents moved forward yesterday.

In addition to sparking large protests in the streets, Monday’s vote triggered several other threats and actions from people who oppose the changes. Doctors and other medical personnel called for a general strike, which went into effect Tuesday. The strike essentially ends all medical services outside of emergency medical services.

A group of approximately 10,000 volunteer Israeli military reservists have also said they will no longer serve as a result of the vote. A group called Brothers and Sisters in Arms formed earlier in the year as part of the protest movement.

“We’ve tried everything. This is where we draw the line. We pledged to serve the kingdom and not the king. We are determined, we are fighters, we love this country and we will not give up on it,” said Eyal Nave, one of the leaders of Brothers in Arms, as reported in The Times of Israel.

Another 1,000 air force reservists announced last week their intention to end their service if the reforms moved forward. The protests have crept into other military and national defense areas, such as intelligence, as well.

“While Israel’s security forces don’t comment on how the reservists joining the protests might impact operationally, the forces have a large number of soldiers in their mandatory service and those impacted so far are older voluntary reservists,” reported the news site Breaking Defense. “Israel’s adversaries, such as Iran however, are paying close attention, as reflected in pro-government media there.

“Air force reservists are a particularly sensitive part of the growing calls to stop the legislation because the branch is a key part of its qualitative military edge in the region and they are seen as an ‘elite’ servicemembers.”

Other groups protesting the package of reforms include a coalition of technology companies. They bought multiple full-page advertisements in Israel’s major newspapers featuring entirely black pages except small-print message saying “A black day for Israeli democracy.” The Israeli Bar Association, representing 77,000 attorneys, called for an immediate hearing on the law.

Finally, the largest union in Israel, Histadrut, is having internal discussions about declaring a general strike. If the Histadrut’s 800,000 workers walk out, commerce in Israel will essentially shut down. When the group called for a strike protesting the reforms in March, air travel at the country’s busiest airport shutdown and commerce began grounding to a halt. The strike lasted one day before conservative leaders delayed their plans.

Opposition leaders have called on the Supreme Court to invalidate the new law. A New York Times article on the court’s possible involvement said “the court has essentially three choices: 1) strike down the law; 2) narrowly interpret it to curb its impact; or 3) simply not decide by refusing to hear any of the petitions.”

The Supreme Court has not had any public response so far to the law or calls for it to intervene.

Another complicating factor is Netanyahu’s own legal troubles. Netanyahu is currently on trial for corruption in which he is accused, alongside other charges, of exchanging regulatory favors with media companies in return for positive coverage. Among the strongest critics of the judicial reforms are those that assert Netanyahu will personally benefit from the reforms by replacing the prosecutors bringing the case against him. Netanyahu has denied the laws would give him the power to do this and has pledged not to seek to remove anyone connected to the case.

See more ASIS resources on mass protests and civil unrest.