Is Israel’s judicial overhaul a democratic point of no return?

Israel stands at a precipice after lawmakers from right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling parliamentary coalition on Monday passed a contentious law that radically limits the Supreme Court’s legislative oversight in what’s been called “the most significant shakeup” to Israel’s judiciary since the nation’s founding in 1948. With tens of thousands of protesters massed outside Israel’s Knesset building, lawmakers voted 64-0 in favor of the controversial measure that sits at the heart of Netanyahu’s broad judicial overhaul effort, after members of the opposition coalition left the parliamentary chambers in protest. Monday’s vote followed months of nationwide protests largely — although not exclusively — against the bill, including an unprecedented stand by more than 1,000 of the country’s air force reservists, who pledged to suspend their military service over the measure. 

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While Netanyahu and his allies have trumpeted the effort as a crucial step forward for the country’s democratic future and a necessary recalibration of governmental authority, critics warn that it is a naked conservative grab for unchecked power that places Israel on a path toward a constitutional crisis — and perhaps even civil war. 

So where could this all lead for Israel, and is it too late to do anything about it? 

What are the commentators saying? 

“They want to dismantle the state,” Israel’s centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid told reporters on Monday, adding that the Netanyahu coalition is “the most irresponsible government in the history of Israel” after negotiations to slow the judicial overhaul process broke down. Lapid’s pessimism echoed that of Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who in March warned that “75 years into Israel’s existence, the abyss is at our fingertips” in light of the civic strife Netanyahu’s proposed reforms had prompted. 

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“The push for more control widely is seen as a preemptive step toward enacting a controversial legislative agenda,” NPR reported, highlighting the conservative government’s push for laws “prioritizing religion and nationalism” — laws which, prior to Monday’s vote, would likely have been struck down for “infring[ing] on basic rights.” Speaking after Monday’s vote, however, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin hailed the new legislation as “an extraordinary moment” that would begin to fix the judicial system by restoring powers “taken from the government and the Knesset over many years.” Far right-wing National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir was similarly laudatory, calling the vote “only the beginning” while predicting “Israel will be a little more democratic, a little more Jewish.”

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President Biden, meanwhile, had urged Israeli officials to slow their rush toward Monday’s vote, reportedly telling Netanyahu one day earlier that “from the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less.” Longtime New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman concurred, writing in an open letter to Biden that “this Israeli government needs another dose of your tough love — not just from your heart but from the heart of U.S. strategic interests as well.”

“It should be obvious to every U.S. policymaker by now that Netanyahu’s cabinet, one that you described as one of the most ‘extreme’ you’ve ever encountered, has its mind set on two dismantling projects,” Friedman said, citing the judicial overhaul as merely the first step toward Israel’s annexation of the West Bank — and the destruction of any hope for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian territory it occupies. 

Highlighting the degree to which his ministers lead the charge on the judicial overhaul effort, Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer concluded on Monday that, despite his authoritarian bent, Netanyahu has paradoxically proven himself the most ineffective prime minister in Israel’s history. “In the weeks leading to the vote, Netanyahu lost any real capability to affect the outcome of the most fateful internal crisis in Israel’s history,” Pfeffer wrote. “He is now the weakest prime minister Israel has ever had. Benjamin Netanyahu has become irrelevant.”

Where could this lead? 

Whether weak or newly emboldened, Netanyahu now presides over a country bracing once more for seismic protests and the prospect of violent civil unrest. “If the situation develops into a constitutional crisis, I will be on the correct side,” David Barnea, director of Israel’s famed Mossad national intelligence service reportedly said, adding that “that’s not the case yet.” Nadav Argaman, former chief of Israel’s internal Shin Bet security service, told Israel’s Channel 12 that Monday’s vote marked the end of the Netanyahu regime, saying “Bibi has a coalition, but he doesn’t have the people. He’s lost the people.”

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“It’s really a feeling of looting, as if the country is their spoils and everything is theirs for the taking,” one woman protesting against the judicial reforms told The New York Times ahead of Monday’s vote. A supporter of the new law countered that “it should really be called a coup, not a protest movement anymore.”

The crisis, although newly acute, is part of a “far deeper rift among competing sections of Israeli society about what it means to be a Jewish state,” the Times explained.

With protesters filling the streets after Monday’s vote, some have begun a push to have the country’s supreme court weigh in on its newly restrictive legislation — an impasse that could touch off the equivalent of a constitutional crisis (Israel has no official constitution) even as the country’s bar association has threatened a work stoppage in opposition to the bill, calling it “an act of protest against the anti-democratic legislative process.” 

While the social unrest that has marked the past several months in Israel has not yet spilled over into widespread violence, Monday’s vote has raised the stakes to a point heretofore unseen across Israeli society. As President Herzog warned earlier this spring: “Those who think that a real civil war, with lives lost, is a line we will not cross, have no idea.”

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