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Netanyahu and His Ultra-Right Coalition Pass First Judicial Reform Despite Wide Resistance

The Israeli Knesset passed a law for judicial overhaul despite massive mobilizations that have been happening for months. What these mobilizations miss, however, is solidarity with Palestinians.

Mirta Pacheco

July 27, 2023
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Amir Levy/Getty Images

On Monday July 24, the Israeli ruling coalition scored a victory that, as the hours went by, seemed more and more pyrrhic. Netanyahu’s party, the Likud, and its ultra-religious and nationalist coalition voted in parliament to overturn the “doctrine of reasonableness”, by which the Supreme Court can reject decisions of the government or the legislature it deems unreasonable. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been protesting the proposed overhaul for 30 weeks.

The major imperialist powers, such as France, Germany, and above all the United States, speak of great concern over this “political unrest” and “the collapse of the ‘Israeli democracy”, regarding their main strategic partner in the Middle East since its creation in 1948. This is partially because the demonstrations and the rejection by secular Israelis of the judicial reform have been joined by 11,000 reservists of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), including 550 pilots who announced that they would not submit to the voluntary reserve exercises. This is virtually unprecedented in Israel, except in 2002/2003, when just over a hundred military personnel refused to be summoned because they refused to act out repression in the West Bank.

Of the 120 seats in the Knesset (the Israeli parliament), 64 deputies — all from the extreme right-wing coalition — approved this judicial reform law that Netanyahu and his ruling partners have been pushing since he took office. The 56 deputies from the opposition walked out amid shouts before the vote. The other main figures pushing for this law were Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich. Ben-Gvir is an ultra-religious settler and leader of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, which stirs up hatred against Palestinians. Smotrich, another settler, is leader of the Religious Zionist Party, which advocates Jewish supremacy and denies the existence of the Palestinian people.

Since Israel has no constitution, it is governed by doctrines, resolutions or laws that the High Court (similar to a Supreme Court) has the power to reject and annul if it deems them “unreasonable”. For the Israeli government, this was a stumbling block to continuing to advance legislation that favors the creation of new settlements and annexing more territory, meaning expanding and radicalizing settlement in the West Bank (as well as benefiting construction businesses). Internally within Israel, the High Court was also a stumbling block for pushing laws that deepen the segregation of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

Additionally, this judicial reform considers expanding the committee that selects judges, so that the current right-wing government will be represented by a majority of members of the selection committee. It also restricts the grounds on which a sitting Prime Minister may be declared unfit for office, those grounds being reduced to physical or mental incapacity, and it must be the Prime Minister themselves (or two thirds of the cabinet) who vote on it. Netanyahu has already succeeded in passing the latter into law, which is favorable to him regarding his ongoing trial for bribery and abuse of power.

Above all, it is the aspects of the law threatening the supposed division of powers that are rejected by the massive mobilizations, mainly of the secular middle class. On Sunday, the day before the vote, approximately 600,000 people mobilized in the streets. Several were arrested and attacked with water cannons, which also led to injuries, something almost unheard of for Jewish Israeli citizens. Mobilizations occurred yet again on the day of the vote. Doctors from the Israeli Medical Association began a one-day  strike to protest against the reform on Tuesday, planning to picket in front of the headquarters of the Histadrut, Israel’s largest national union, calling for a general strike. Hours after the strike began, it was halted after a judge granted an injunction that was requested by the government.

The defense of the prerogatives of the Supreme Court is also the defense of the status quo inside Israel defended by the opposition leaders, almost all former high commanders of an army founded to repress Palestinians in particular, and Arab neighbors in general. In fact, Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition to Netanyahu, is one of the few who made his career outside the army, as a writer and television commentator. It is this same Supreme Court that orders demolitions of Palestinian homes and issues eviction orders for properties to be left in the hands of settlers (especially in East Jerusalem), just to name two examples.

This also explains why Israeli Palestinians are absent from these huge mobilizations. They do not feel called upon because they know they are second-class citizens, with far fewer rights than Jewish Israelis. In fact, on several occassions small groups of pro-Palestinian Israelis with anti-occupation banners were kicked out or marginalized from the marches.

However, among Israelis who oppose this reform, there is the idea that Netanyahu’s reactionary policy may exacerbate the situation in the West Bank, affect Israel’s relationship with the Arab states, and further deteriorate Israel’s image abroad. Although Israeli “democracy” itself is based on the oppression of the Palestinian people — including an apartheid in the West Bank and the open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip — there is no doubt that an authoritarian government with minimal checks, and which is moving towards an increasingly theocratic state, would aggravate the situation. In fact, more than a dozen former security chiefs claimed that this law endangers Israel’s security.

An Inconvenience for Imperialism

The potential danger of this reform in endangering Israel’s security is a big concern for the imperialist powers. Joe Biden has been calling on the ruling coalition, in particular Netanyahu, to abandon judicial reform, and rejects getting rid of the “doctrine of reasonableness”. The Democrats, along with several Republicans, are wondering, with concern, about Netanyahu’s goal. The argument in support of the state of Israel that is always put forward by the various imperialist powers is the necessary defense of the “only democracy in the Middle East”, contrasting it to Islamic states. This argument is put forward above all by the United States, including at the UN Security Council — where it always votes in favor of Israel.

The reality is that Israel, the junior partner of U.S. imperialism, served and still serves to maintain imperialist interests in the region, first with wars and then with agreements established with the Arab states. However, on several occasions the relationship  has become dysfunctional, as happened to Obama with Netanyahu himself. However, the changing world, with the reactionary war in Ukraine with its consequences, and Biden’s first priority being strategic competition with China, threatens to deepen this dysfunctionality. The emergence of the situation in Israel is bothersome in that, for the time being, it pulls Biden’s attention away from the U.S.’s primary objectives, and raises concerns about possible serious consequences. There is also the factor of the large Jewish community within the U.S. (mostly Democratic) which mobilized against the Israeli government’s judicial reforms.

In fact, there were some Democratic legislators that proposed reducing the military aid that the U.S. gives Israel annually, some $4 billion. Rather than this being an achievable goal, it speaks of the noise it’s generating in the Biden administration. White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday after the Knesset vote that “It is unfortunate that the vote today took place with the slimmest possible majority.”

Germany also expressed concern. Several Supreme Court judges ended their trip in that country, returning quickly to Israel to study and unify legal responses to this judicial reform law vote on Monday.

It is too early to come to conclusions on possible outcomes of this situation, but one thing is certain: the Palestinians who claim that this will only serve to exacerbate their situation are not wrong. In fact, the persecution of activists and the repression and assassinations in several West Bank cities continue unabated. This is why it is necessary to have broad mobilization in the Arab Countries, as well as in Europe and the U.S., in defense of the Palestinian people. These can be helped by unity of Arab people in the Palestinian territories with those living in Israel (who make up 20% of the Israeli population), as well as Jewish Israeli anti-occupation activists, to reissue the strikes and generalized mobilizations to confront the policies of the Zionist State. 

First Published in Spanish on July 25 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Molly Rosenzweig.

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