On Monday, 20th February 2023, for a second straight week, tens of thousands of protesters gathered outside the Knesset, as lawmakers prepared to hold the first vote over the controversial plan proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Benjamin Netanyahu, 71 years, informally known as Bibi, is the first Israel-born politician. He is the longest-serving Prime Minister for more than 14 years. His government is deemed to be the most ultra-orthodox and right-wing government in history. In a recent development, Mr. Netanyahu plans to take the reign of the country completely by coming up with an overtly ambitious judicial reform bill. He expressed a willingness to talk to the opposition but is firm on with the legislation without delay. He assured that Israel is a democratic country and will remain a democratic country.
Judicial Reform Bill
The bill seeks to empower the government to take decisions regarding the appointment over judicial appointments. Presently, jurists are appointed by a panel overseen by the Justice Minister. The panel includes judges, lawmakers, and lawyers representing the Israeli Bar Association. Under the government proposals, the panel would include two “members of the public” who would be named by the Justice Minister’s office. Sitting judges would still be on the panel as another Israeli minister but the members of the association would be removed. The bill would give elected representatives more control of the judicial system by giving the government a de facto majority in the process of nominating the judges.
The bill also camouflages the parliamentary agenda of revoking the court’s ability to review the Basic Laws. Israel does not have a written constitution and is governed by Basic Laws. There are 13 basic laws that do enjoy the status of quasi-constitutional laws. Some of these laws can only be changed by a supermajority vote in the Knesset. As the ruling government holds a majority in Knesset, Netanyahu’s party will have the most power if the law is passed.
First Reading in Knesset
The Netanyahu government possesses 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. On Monday (February 20), the vote was just the first of three readings needed for parliamentary approval and the process is expected to take months. The Legislation Committee Chairman, MK Simcha Rothman presented the proposal to the Knesset amid the chaos. The bill got passed with a vote of 63-47. The bill would now return to the committee for revisions after which it will go through two more readings in the Knesset before becoming law.
Uproar among the citizens and opposition
The opposition started chanting SHAME after a furious debate for 7-8 hours in Knesset. On Monday noon, tens of thousands of citizens carrying Israeli flags and STOP signs gathered in Jerusalem to protest the vote. Police officers manned barriers to prevent protesters from reaching parliament and arrested eight demonstrators for breaching public order and disobeying instructions. By the end of the week, mass demonstrations across the country against the proposed judicial reform bill entered their sixth week. Many citizens also blocked lawmakers’ houses in order to stop them from going to Knesset to vote.
Several polls suggested that most Israelis including Netanyahu supporters either want the reforms to be slowed down or to be completely shelved. Many accuse Mr. Netanyahu of a conflict of interest as he is facing charges of corruption. The United States of America has also taken interest in the internal matter of Israel and asked to wait for consensus before proceeding with the legislation.
Mr. Netanyahu’s government is playing tug of war with the citizens and the opposition for having an absolute monopoly over the power. No doubt, the law will upend the country’s system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister.