Analysis: Mass demos continue as Herzog assails Bibi’s judicial reforms

The Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial reforms have begun their passage through the Knesset this week – amid a national strike, huge demonstrations and an unprecedented appeal from President Isaac Herzog for the current plans to be abandoned.

What happened  

  • More than 100,000 Israelis rallied at the Knesset on Monday as the judicial reforms were debated by a key committee.
  • Demonstrations throughout the country took place for the sixth week on Saturday night.
  • The Israeli president delivered a surprise television address on Sunday evening warning of “societal collapse” if the government ploughs on.
  • Former national security chiefs, retired Supreme Court justices and Nobel Prize winners attacked the plans.
  • Ministers accused the attorney general and Supreme Court of attempting to “carry out a coup” after agreeing to hear a petition by a good government group demanding the prime minister take a leave of absence.

A recap

Soon after taking office last month, the justice minister, Yariv Levin, outlined reforms to the relationship between the judiciary and the legislature. They would allow a simple Knesset majority vote to override High Court decisions annulling laws. The reforms would also strengthen the role of politicians in appointing judges and government legal advisers.

Herzog’s warning

While attempting to maintain his office’s traditional non-partisan character, Herzog has previously called for compromise, dialogue and slowing the pace of the government’s rush to push the changes through the Knesset. However, on Sunday evening, the president went far further:

  • “I believe that the sum of all parts of the reform, in its current form, raises deep concerns about their potential negative impact on the democratic foundations of the State of Israel,” Herzog declared.
  • “I feel, we all feel, that we are a moment before a confrontation, even a violent confrontation,” the president said. “Both sides must understand that if only one side wins – no matter which side it is – we will all lose. The State of Israel will lose.”
  • Herzog set out a series of principles for a compromise reform package. They would scupper the government’s plans to give itself an in-built majority on the Judges Selection Committee and lengthen and strengthen the process by which Israel’s semi-constitutional Basic Laws are passed. On the basis that these laws would require a super-majority in the Knesset, Herzog proposes, the courts would no longer be able to overturn them. However, the president’s package would also enshrine the right of the judiciary to review and potentially throw-out all other legislation. The president’s package “went to the heart of Levin’s overhaul – and defanged it,” the Times of Israel’s editor, David Horovitz, noted approvingly.
  • The president called for the Knesset’s the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to pause votes on the package on Monday and consider instead his proposals for a compromise. The committee chair – far-right MK Simcha Rothman – rejected Herzog’s request. However, the government has delayed the first of a series of plenary votes in the Knesset by several days.
  • In a raucous session, the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved sending the first piece of legislation to its first plenary reading, but not before opposition MKs confronted Rothman and attempted to disrupt the meeting with singing and chants of “shame”.
  • Opposition leaders refused an invitation from Levin and Rothman to meet at Herzog’s residence on Monday evening, citing the government’s refusal to halt progress on the legislation, as the president had requested.

Demonstrators flood Jerusalem …

As the Knesset committee considered the bill, over 100,000 Israelis are estimated to have joined a mass demonstration outside the parliament. At the same time, hundreds of start-ups, law firms and other private sector companies allowed their employees to join a nationwide strike against the government’s plans. The protest and strike followed demonstrations throughout Israel on Saturday night – for the sixth consecutive week. Aside from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, crowds took to the streets in Haifa, Be’er Sheva, Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Kfar Saba, Modi’in, Herzliya – and, for the first time, at the West Bank settlement of Efrat. In Tel Aviv, former foreign minister Tzipi Livni warned: “The earthquake that threatens to destroy our home is not a natural disaster, it’s man-made. At its head is Netanyahu, a defendant attempting to escape justice, and his messianic accomplices who are driven by revenge and hatred.”

… as protests suggest Bibi has already lost

Writing in Haaretz, commentator Anshel Pfeffer said the scale of the demonstrations and the endurance of the protesters; involvement of sections of the public that don’t usually take part in politics, such as hi-tech workers and army reservists; and the backing provided by the business and financial community make them unprecedented in Israel’s history. He believes Netanyahu has been caught off-guard by the protests. “In a matter of weeks, the government’s programme has become an issue over which the most patriotic of Israelis are threatening to break all the old ground rules,” Pfeffer wrote on Monday. “Even if the government manages to eviscerate the Supreme Court, Netanyahu has already lost the battle over the public.”

More voices of opposition raised

Away from the streets, opposition continued to grow to the judicial reforms, following ferocious criticism by economists, former Bank of Israel governors and top civil servants, and leading law firms in recent weeks.

  • Former heads of the National Security Council – including some who have worked closely with Netanyahu in the past – warned Israel’s “social resilience” is under threat, and called for the leaders of coalition and opposition parties, “to enter into serious talks without preconditions and … reach an agreement on the powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches”.
  • Eighteen retired Supreme Court judges attacked the government’s plans, saying they were “causing a serious and dangerous polarisation in society and … could bring disaster on Israel”.
  • Seven Nobel Prize winners released a letter echoing concerns about the impact of the reforms on Israel’s economy, suggesting they would “have clear negative impacts on research and institutions of higher education”, pointing to the damage done to the science and research sectors in Turkey, Poland and Hungary.

“Carrying out a coup”

Netanyahu’s allies reacted furiously to the decision of the Supreme Court to hear a petition brought last week by a good governance group. It claims that, by pushing the judicial reforms, the scandal-ridden prime minister is in breach of a conflict of interest arrangement which is supposed to prevent him from involvement in matters that could impact his continuing corruption trial. The petition calls for Netanyahu to be forced to take a leave of absence. “An attempt to oust a prime minister against the law, while trampling on democratic choice, is no different from a putsch carried out with tanks,” Levin, the architect of the judicial reforms, warned. But the founder of the Movement for Quality Government rejected the justice minister’s allegations. Media reports have previously suggested the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, has considered ruling Netanyahu is in breach of the conflict of interest agreement.

Find out more

Our colleagues at BICOM have put together a briefing about the judicial reforms.