‘Judicial Reform’: Bibi’s Get-Out-of-Jail-Free Card; PM for Life?

Israel’s new government threatens to weaken Israel’s democracy and fray U.S.-Israel relations on two fronts: Its proposed overhaul of Israel’s judicial system and its refusal to refrain from settlement expansion.

Amir Tibon reports that the judicial changes would allow the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) to overrule Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority, forbid the Supreme Court from striking down “Basic Laws” (a term currently undefined), and give the Knesset complete power over judicial appointments (currently made by committee).

Michael Koplow explains the problem with allowing a simple majority of the Knesset to override Supreme Court decisions: “The dynamic of a Knesset majority being indistinguishable from the government means that giving that same Knesset majority the ability to ignore the Supreme Court’s directives turns Israel into a system with one supreme branch of government and with no checks or balances whatsoever.” Yuval Noah Harari points out that comparisons between where Israel might be headed and Hungary are inapposite: an undemocratic Israel would be far worse.

It’s not hard to see how Netanyahu could use these reforms to keep himself out of jail. Koplow again: “If, for instance, the government wants to pass a Basic Law that Binyamin Netanyahu is prime minister for life…there is nothing to prevent that from happening under Israel’s current structure, but the government’s bill means that going forward, the Supreme Court would not be able to strike such laws down.”

But a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for Bibi is not the biggest problem. Tibon explains that if Israel’s judiciary is not perceived as independent, “Israel would lose international legitimacy for its military operations and would no longer be shielded from accusations of war crimes.”

Leading American Jewish organizations are opposing the proposed judicial overhaul or expressing serious concerns, including Jewish Federations of North America, the Conservative/Masorti movement (signed by 15 Conservative organizations, including the Jewish Theological Seminary), the Rabbinical Assembly, the Union for Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Democratic Council of AmericaYoung JudaeaJ Street, and the American Jewish Committee.

Continued settlement expansion threatens Israel’s democracy. The only argument Israel has for applying different laws, including the right to vote, to Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank is that Israel is temporarily occupying the West Bank and Jews living in the West Bank are citizens of Israel while Palestinians living in the West Bank are not. The more the occupation looks permanent, either de facto or de jure, the weaker that argument becomes (which, incidentally, is why it is a mistake to conflate the West Bank with Israel by treating boycotts of the West Bank as if they were boycotts of Israel).  . . . 

The administration supported, in lieu of a Security Council resolution, a statement made by the President of the Security Council on behalf of the Council, adopted at a formal meeting of the Council and issued as an official document of the Council, expressing “deep concern and dismay with Israel’s announcement on February 12, 2023, announcing further construction and expansion of settlements [and reiterating] that continuing Israeli settlement activities are dangerously imperiling the viability of the two-State solution based on the 1967 lines.” The statement is reasonable and well-worded.

The administration’s statement supporting the UN statement said that “we strongly oppose Israel’s announcement that it will advance thousands of settlement units. And we strongly oppose Israel’s announcement that it begin a process to retroactively legalize nine outposts in the West Bank that were previously illegal under Israeli law. These unilateral measures exacerbate tensions. They harm trust between the parties. They undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state solution. The United States does not support these actions. Full stop.” 

But on February 23, Bibi granted sweeping governing authorities in the West Bank to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (whose racist comments have been condemned by the ADL, among many others). Americans for Peace Now explain that “the agreement between Netanyahu and Smotrich constitutes a structural change in the way Israel rules the territory it captured in 1967. Instead of the occupied territory being subject to the military commander, as stipulated in international law, civilian aspects of running the occupation will now be directed by a civilian member of the occupying power who is explicitly committed to enhancing Israel’s sovereignty in the occupied West Bank,” which is the first step toward de jure annexation. Michael Sfard provides a deeper analysis in this thread.  . . .

One can read all of this post, “What Does Pro-Israel Advocacy Mean in 2023?,” from the Feb. 26, 2023 issue of “Steve Sheffey’s Pro-Israel Political Update” (including how to support that weekly publication).