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Israel's far-right government wants the power to override its Supreme Court

Lawyers gather in a demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Tel Aviv District Court of Justice on Jan. 12. The new justice minister Yariv Levin outlined proposals such as allowing politicians to override Supreme Court decisions.
Jack Guez
/
AFP via Getty Images
Lawyers gather in a demonstration against the Israeli government's controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Tel Aviv District Court of Justice on Jan. 12. The new justice minister Yariv Levin outlined proposals such as allowing politicians to override Supreme Court decisions.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Despite overwhelming domestic protest and concerns from the U.S., Israel's most far-right government in history is doubling down on its plan to fundamentally remake Israel's system of government by weakening the powers of the judiciary.

The chief justice of Israel's Supreme Court has said the proposal would be a "fatal blow to democracy." Israel's attorney general on Thursday said it would give the government "almost unrestrained power" and "weaken constitutional protection over ... human rights."

Tens of thousands of Israelis have mounted the largest street protests the country has seen in years, with the fifth consecutive weekend demonstration planned for Saturday.

Israeli demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Jan. 21 protested the new far-right government's proposal to weaken the powers of the judiciary.
Daniel Estrin / NPR
/
NPR
Israeli demonstrators in Tel Aviv on Jan. 21 protested the new far-right government's proposal to weaken the powers of the judiciary.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog likened the plan to a "powder keg ... about to explode," and said he is negotiating with politicians behind the scenes to avoid a constitutional crisis. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke this week about the importance of "rule of law" and reaching consensus on the judicial proposal.

Here's what's at stake — and why opponents of the plan think Israel is following the path of the diminished democracies of Hungary and Poland.

Israel's far-right government wants power over the Supreme Court

Among the proposed changes, Israel's government wants to pass laws that would give it the controlling vote over which judges are appointed to courts. Currently, politicians have a minority vote in Israel's judicial selection committee.

The most controversial element of the proposal would give the government the power to override the Supreme Court and, with a simple majority vote in parliament, re-legislate any law that the Supreme Court strikes down as an unconstitutional infringement on rights and freedoms.

This proposed override power could help Israel's pro-West Bank settler and religious coalition achieve goals the Supreme Court has previously blocked, such as taking over land privately owned by Palestinians and exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israel's compulsory military draft so they can devote themselves to religious study.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, currently on trial for corruption, could also personally benefit from a judicial overhaul, if he's given the power to select Israel's judges. Should Netanyahu be convicted, his government's hand-picked judges would hear his appeal.

This week, Israel's attorney general Gali Baharav-Miara instructed Netanyahu to end his involvement in the judicial overhaul efforts because he risked a conflict of interest. Baharav-Miara criticized the proposed legislation in a written opinion to Netanyahu's justice minister.

However, says Suzie Navot of the Israel Democracy Institute, "The reform may move forward even if the attorney general will not defend the legislation."

Netanyahu has repeatedly gone on the defensive about his government's proposed judicial remake, pointing to a Wall Street Journal editorial that argues the Supreme Court is too powerful. He says a true democracy protects the majority from the will of the minority.

If the government gains the power to override the Supreme Court, "This may be the end of a full democracy," Navot warns. "A democracy means that you have an effective protection on human rights."

Some argue that Israel's democracy did not qualify as full even before these proposed changes, since Israel does not extend equal rights to the millions of Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory. But the proposed overhaul would limit the court's ability to continue to extend protections to Palestinians and Israelis alike, opponents say.

Israel is taking a page from the same playbook as Hungary and Poland

When far-right politicians came to office in Hungary in 2010, and in Poland in 2015, their first moves in consolidating power included steps to weaken the judiciary.

Both countries changed the makeup of their constitutional courts and restricted their freedoms, says Hadas Aron, an Israeli professor at New York University who studies populism in Hungary, Poland and Israel.

The second step they took was to eliminate or limit independent media, she says.

"We see those two things happening in Israel," Aron says.

Israel's government has indicated it wants to make cuts to the country's editorially independent public broadcaster, which could force it to shut down. On Thursday, Israeli media reported the coalition decided to delay that initiative to focus on its judicial overhaul.

Freedom House, the nonpartisan democracy advocacy organization, says Poland's democratic progress has been damaged, and Hungary has become a hybrid between a democracy and autocracy. Critics of Israel's new government fear it's now heading in the same direction.

Israel's economy and credit ratings may take a hit

Two former heads of Israel's central bank warned in an op-ed that Israel's strong international credit rating could drop, as did Poland's and Hungary's when their judiciaries were weakened. More than 270 Israeli economists, including Netanyahu's former economic adviser, warned the same in a petition, and J.P. Morgan also warned about economic risks in a report Thursday.

Netanyahu has dismissed the warnings, insisting Israel's economy is strong.

Moshe Hazan, a top monetary advisor to Israel's central bank, quit the bank to be able to speak out about the government's plans regarding the judiciary.

He is concerned about a brain drain, should Israel's economy take a hit.

"I think it's important to make clear to the government that this reform is going to hurt the Israeli economy," Hazan tells NPR, "and probably pretty soon."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.