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Israel: Why is the judicial reforms controversial?

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In a show of anger, hundreds of thousands of Israel citizens took to the streets Sunday evening to protest the judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and backed by his ruling coalition of far-right and religious extremists. Israeli embassies around the world are closed as Israelis in the country’s foreign service join with other government workers to protest the strike.

Airports are closed, as are universities, the nation is paralyzed by a general strike.

The protests, which began in January, seem to have angered Netanyahu. On Monday night, the embattled leader announced he was postponing the divisional power grab, which requires legislative approval, until the next legislative session.

A photo file of Netanyahu

“I am not ready to divide the nation into pieces,” Netanyahu said in a televised address Monday night that marked one of the most dramatic episodes in Israel’s turbulent history.

Why are the judicial reforms so controversial?

If fully implemented, the “reforms” outlined in January by Netanyahu and Justice Minister Yariv Levin would allow a majority in the Knesset, Israel’s unicameral parliament, to overrule the Supreme Court. Politicians would also have a greater say in the selection of judges, a process now overseen by the Israel Bar.

The proposals have been dismissed as undemocratic and contrary to Israel’s identity as a liberal Western democracy: “Pure racism without borders,” in the words of Natan Sachs, a Middle East expert at the left-leaning Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Why is Netanyahu insisting on these reforms?

After the first wave of protests in January, Netanyahu insisted that his plan was not only popular but necessary to prevent the expansion of judicial powers that took place in the 1990s.

He also argued that his reforms will bring Israel’s government in line with that of Western nations. “Democracy is built on the right balance between the three branches and this balance exists in all democracies in the world,” he said. (President Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron condemned Netanyahu’s plan.)

But some Israelis believe a more self-serving concern is motivating Netanyahu, who was indicted on three corruption charges in 2019 and could face jail time if convicted. (The trial began in 2020; he pleaded not guilty.)

“My assessment and my opinion is that Netanyahu wants to create a situation in which his case is not concluded properly,” former attorney general Avichai Mandelblit said last month.

And after?

Netanyahu said on Monday he would halt efforts to push his plan through the Knesset – but did not indicate that the reforms would be reinstated outright, as protesters had demanded. Moreover, given Netanyahu’s concession to Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu’s critics are unlikely to rest.

“The protests will continue,” predicted Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer.

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