“Powder keg about to explode” over judicial review plan

Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog speaks during the swearing-in ceremony of Israel's new government at the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem November 15, 2022

Israeli President Isaac Herzog speaks during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Israeli government at the Knesset in Jerusalem November 15, 2022. Photo: Abir Sultan/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli President Isaac Herzog presented a proposal to resolve the constitutional crisis surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to weaken the Supreme Court in a speech to the nation on Sunday, urging the government to suspend the legislative process and start talks on judicial reform to match the broad consensus achieve.

Why it matters: Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul plan has sparked mass protests in Israel and concerns from the Biden administration about what it could mean for the US ally’s democracy.

  • The first vote in the Knesset Legislative Committee on the first part of the justice plan is expected on Monday. Once voting begins, stopping the legislative process will be much more difficult.
  • The organizers of the protests against the justice plan have also called for a nationwide strike on Monday. The strike includes a protest in front of the Israeli parliament.

Catch up fast: Netanyahu’s government — the most right-wing in the country’s history — unveiled its judicial overhaul plan just weeks after taking office.

  • The plan includes passing legislation that would allow the ruling coalition to overrule Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset. That would severely limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review and overturn laws.
  • It also seeks to end the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn administrative decisions of the government on grounds of “reasonableness,” significantly reducing judicial oversight. And it envisages giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over the appointment of judges.
  • The plan has deepened political divisions within Israel and prompted rare statements from US officials, who normally avoid interfering in Israeli internal issues. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Netanyahu to reach a broad consensus on his plan during his trip to the region this month.

What you say: Herzog warned on Sunday that the dispute in Israeli society over Netanyahu’s plan could lead to violence.

  • “We are no longer in a political debate. We are on the verge of a societal and constitutional collapse. The powder keg is about to explode,” said Herzog.
  • The Israeli president said calls for judicial reform were justified, but stressed that the government’s current plan “raises deep concerns about possible negative implications for Israel’s democratic foundations.”
  • He said intelligence reports he recently read showed Israel’s enemies watching developments with glee. “Is there a bigger warning sign than this?” Herzog asked.

Herzog presented five principles as a basis for immediate negotiations between the government, the opposition and the President of the Supreme Court. The principles include:

  • Upgrading the constitutional status of basic laws and the manner in which they are passed and excluding them from judicial control.
  • Reaching, through negotiations, a broad consensus on the majority needed for the Supreme Court to overrule laws and the majority needed for the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions.
  • Significantly increase the number of judges so that citizens receive a better service from the justice system.
  • Changing the system of appointing judges in a way that weakens the power of today’s Supreme Court justices, but does not give the government a majority to appoint judges.

  • Reaching consensus through negotiation on how to define the Supreme Court’s use of the “reasonableness ground” that allows it to overturn administrative decisions of the executive branch.

Herzog called on the Attorney Generalthe Speakers of the Legislative Committee of the Knesset and the President of the Supreme Court to begin negotiations without delay on the basis of its principles and under its auspices.

  • Herzog also called on the coalition to suspend the legislative process, not to vote on the justice plan as planned on Monday and Wednesday and to negotiate instead.

Shortly after Herzog’s speech Justice Minister Yariv Levin dismissed Herzog’s calls and said he would not suspend voting scheduled for Monday. Levin added that while Herzog’s proposal has positive elements, there is no justification for linking the legislative process to the dialogue on the justice plan.

  • Many in the Israeli opposition, including former Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, accepted Herzog’s proposal.

The big picture: President Biden first commented on Netanyahu’s justice plan in a brief statement to the New York Times, published Sunday.

  • It is very unusual for Biden or any US president to intervene in a close ally’s domestic legislation, but his comments showed the concern his administration has about Netanyahu’s plan.
  • “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, checks and balances, and an independent judiciary. It’s really important to get consensus on fundamental changes to make sure people accept them so that they can be sustained,” Biden said.
  • Tom Nides, the US ambassador to Israel, further praised Herzog’s speech on Sunday Twitter.

go deeper: Blinken’s civics lesson for Netanyahu

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated throughout with additional details.

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