Israel has been in world news headlines for several months
now, but not for reasons involving conflict with neighbors.
Instead, the world has witnessed four consecutive months
where Israelis have participated in massive anti-government
demonstrations, as well as a smaller number of gatherings
in support of the current government. What is happening
on the streets of Tel Aviv and other major Israeli cities?
Understanding Israel’s Political System.
To digest what is happening, we first have to understand
how Israeli governance works, starting with elections.
Unlike the United States, in Israel citizens vote directly
for the political party of their choice, and the results of
that election determine the composition of Israel’s
Parliament, the Knesset. The President of Israel must
then decide who has the best chance to cobble together a
coalition among the newly elected Knesset members.
Usually (though not always) the President asks the leader
of the party that received the most votes; whoever the
President selects is then given a mandate as presumptive
Prime Minister to from a new government from those
elected to the Knesset. After negotiations, the Prime
Minister brings the proposed government (which includes
all ministerial assignments) to the Knesset for a vote of
approval. Note that there is only one elected body in
Israel, the Knesset (contrast that with the Senate and
the House of Representatives in the US).
Israel’s Supreme Court
Also unlike the United States, Israel does not have a
constitution, but it does have a Supreme Court and
several lower courts. While most of the Supreme Court’s
work focuses on appeals of various civil, criminal, and
administrative decisions made by district courts, the
Supreme Court is also meant to serve as Israel’s guarantor
of “checks and balances” on the government. This means
that the Israeli Supreme Court can and does conduct
judicial review of actual legislation passed by the Knesset,
and on occasion declare certain laws passed by the Knesset
to be illegal. This being the case, it is clear that Israel’s
Supreme Court bears both power and responsibility.
How Is The Supreme Court Assembled?
This brings us to the crux of the controversy roiling Israel.
The procedure for selecting judges is regulated, in Israel’s
Basic Law: The Judiciary, which established Israel’s
Committee for the Selection of Judges.
Israel and Judicial Reform: What’s Going On?
May 2023 9
This important committee has nine members, which are:
● The Minister of Justice (who serves as chair)
● The Supreme Court President
● An additional minister
● Two Supreme Court judges
● Two Knesset members
● Two representatives of the Israel Bar Association
What’s The Problem?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask!
The current governing coalition contends that the
Supreme Court is not representative of the diversity in
Israeli Society, noting that while Knesset members are
elected by the population, Supreme Court justices are
appointed and not beholden to the population. They seek
to change the makeup of the Committee for the Selection
of Judges in such a way that would grant the representative
and appointees of the government an automatic majority
on this committee. If successful, this would mean that in
effect, the government via the committee could pick
Supreme Court judges and even the next president of the
Court. The current government also seeks to curb what it
considers to be the Court’s overreach by reducing the
Court’s ability to rescind laws it deems illegal.
The anti-government demonstrators see this as a power
grab to solidify the positions (and members) of the
government that could be the beginning of the end of
democracy in Israel. The protestors argue that if the
proposed changes pass, then the acts for which current
Prime Minister Netanyahu is under indictment could be
declared to not be illegal, while the law preventing Shas
party leader Aryeh Deri from serving as a Minister in the
current government on account of his previous convictions
could also be overturned. The demonstrators want the
rules to stay as they are.
The election this past fall also revealed just how polarized
Israeli society has become. Though Prime Minister
Netanyahu was able to form a majority of 64 Knesset
members (out of 120 seats in total), there was only an
0.6% difference in all popular votes cast favoring the
Netanyahu block (see December 2022 Israel Matters).
Indeed, Prime Minister Netanyahu was only able to
achieve this majority by awarding important ministries
to parties that represent the most extreme religious and
nationalistic parties in Israeli politics today. The anti-
government demonstrators also fear the erosion of civil
liberties that are anathema to the extreme right (think
about gay rights for example).
What Can We Take From This?
It is indeed interesting to note that the demonstrators
are not protesting the status quo; rather they see them-
selves as defending their country – they want to status
quo to persist! Nonetheless, there are principled govern-
ment opponents who do concede that there is a case to be
made for some measure of judicial reform. Former
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the leader of the Blue
and White party that was in the former government but
now sits in the opposition, claims that 80% of Israeli
citizens agree on 80% of the issues, which certainly
suggests that there is ample room for compromise.
To quote from Prof. Boaz Golany, former Executive Vice
President and Director General of the Technion-Israel
Institute of Technology in a recent article that appeared
in the Jerusalem Post:
“Arguing has always been part of our heritage and
culture. It’s been part of our societal DNA from the time of
Moses, through Talmudic arguments and all the way to
modern Israel. Sometimes these arguments lead to heated
emotions and quarrels, but eventually we find ways to
agree with one another.
Most importantly, don’t lose your belief in Israel as a
Jewish and democratic country, one that will continue to
prosper and develop for the betterment of all its citizens,
Jews and non-Jews alike, today and in the future. In the
spirit of the Passover holiday, I invite both communities
to maintain our strong ties and keep the fire burning.”
To which we at Israel Matters can only say, Amen!