They call it “salami tactics.”
Critics of Israel’s right-wing government’s plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of slicing up the original legislative package to make it more palatable. Some protesters made that point by brandishing giant plastic salamis during large-scale protests on Tuesday.
Mr. Netanyahu and his allies argue that all they want is to give more power to elected officials and take more control from unelected Supreme Court judges who they say are overstepping their roles. But Mr Netanyahu may be looking for ways to proceed with the plan more slowly after protests in March brought parts of the country to a virtual standstill.
On Wednesday, Parliament took a step that preserved the long-standing format of the committee that selects judges. But some members of Mr. Netanyahu’s government say the committee will not meet until new legislation is passed to reconstitute the panel in a way that would give government representatives an automatic majority.
By using a more piecemeal approach to the judicial review, Mr Netanyahu may be trying to appease his hard-line coalition partners, who insist on seeing some progress on their goals, while trying to make the changes easier for critics to swallow.
“The new piecemeal approach, legislating chapter by chapter, is obviously much more complex politically,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “You’re bringing one issue at a time into the political discourse,” he said, making it harder for opponents to mobilize protests because the question of what’s to come becomes ambiguous.
What is at stake?
The stakes could hardly be higher for Mr. Netanyahu, and for the entire country. Abolishing the judicial review plan could mean a collapse of the government and a return to the kind of political instability that has led Israel to hold five elections in the past four years.
But moving forward without broad public consensus could further strain Israel’s relations with the Biden administration and disrupt the economy. Amir Yaron, the governor of Israel’s central bank, said this week that the continued uncertainty and instability created by the court proposals could have significant economic costs.
The president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, warned that the schism could lead to civil war.
What happens next?
Parliament voted Tuesday in favor of a piece of legislation advancing the judicial review plan, triggering another tumultuous day of protests. That bill needs to pass two more votes to become law, and the government looks set to hold the final vote before Parliament breaks for summer recess later this month.
The bill in question would prohibit the Israeli courts from using the legal standard of “reason” to nullify government decisions in the realm of politics or appointments, removing one of its main tools of judicial oversight. A parliamentary committee on Wednesday began preparing the bill for second and third readings.
The bill moved forward after a three-month hiatus during which the government and the opposition sought but failed to reach a compromise on the broader proposed overhaul.
Some Israeli legal experts say there is an argument for limiting the court’s use of the vague standard of reasonableness, which has never been defined under Israeli law. Mr. Netanyahu said this week that the judicial change is “not the end of democracy but rather the strengthening of democracy.”
Supporters of the review said the courts had other tools to check government appointments and decisions, without relying on rationality. The finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a staunch supporter, described the prudence restriction as “a vital necessity” – one, he claimed, that in fact enjoys “broad consensus”.
But many legal experts have denounced what they call the draconian version of the proposed law, saying it could be used by Mr. Netanyahu to replace the attorney general and end his own trial on corruption charges. Mr. Netanyahu has denied such motives and any wrongdoing.
Will more legislation be forthcoming?
It’s hard to know. The current bill, while controversial, does not include some of the most controversial changes previously proposed by Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition.
The question on many people’s minds is whether Mr. Netanyahu will stop after the passage of this bill in the hope that it will satisfy his coalition partners. Or will he make more changes piece by piece, as the opposition fears.
In one example of how opaque the situation is, Mr. Netanyahu said in an interview last week that he had thrown out a particularly divisive part of the judicial review plan that would have allowed Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions. But several of his ministers have since said it remains on the agenda.
The bill to change the composition of the judges’ election commission was suspended after the wave of protests in March, but it could be brought back to parliament for approval at any time.
Where does the prime minister stand?
Mr. Netanyahu is caught between stabilizing his coalition, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that have their own reasons for wanting to limit the Supreme Court’s powers, and the fury of more liberal Israelis, who are likely to strengthen the Israelis. protests if and when the “reasonable” vote bill comes up for a final vote.
“Netanyahu remains very ambiguous about whether this will be the last chapter, while other members of the government are very explicit about their intention to continue,” Mr Plesner said. “No one really knows.”
Can the opposition stop the plan?
More than in parliament, Israel’s opposition parties are powerless to vote against the judicial legislation on their own.
But the popular reaction to the review came from the power centers of Israeli society, including hundreds of volunteers in the most elite ranks of the military reserves, along with leaders of the famous high-tech industry, academia, the medical profession and the powerful trade unions. . All these powerful players joined forces and forced Mr. Netanyahu to pause the review a few months ago.
Reservists from prestigious army units are again threatening to stop volunteering if the review goes ahead.
Arnon Bar-David, president of the Histadrut, the main trade union, called on Mr Netanyahu on Tuesday to “stop the crazy chaos in Israeli society”. He stopped short of a threat of an imminent general strike but told union leaders: “When I feel things have gone too far, we will use our force.”