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Tel Aviv in the distance
photo by Rhonda Spivak

Editor's Thoughts on the Halting of the Judicial Reforms in Israel

by Rhonda Spivak, March 31, 2023

Jew around the world have been watching events in Israel relating to judicial reform unfold with increased worry and concern. We have been seeing the implosion of Israeli society, and has been frightening. 
We have witnessed Netanyahu fire his Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for speaking out to the nation and asking to halt a judicial reform which would give the government far greater control over  the selection of the judiciary than it currently has. Gallant made this statement out of a genuine fear that the IDF  was in the process of disintegrating both in the reserves and regular standing army due to the  proposed reforms, which Gallant deemed to constitute a mortal danger to national security.  Gallant gave his professional opinion. Israel is facing threats from Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas in Gaza, terror in the West Bank, etc and Gallant maintained it could not have its house on fire while it confronts these real external threats. 

Whatever one says about Gallant, it is clear he had no personal interest in taking the position he did and was willing to pay the price politically. Gallant had requested to present intelligence reports to the cabinet to support the need to pause the judicial overhaul, but Netanyahu refused. 


There are many in Israel who suspect that Netanyahu wants to control the appointment of  the head of the Supreme Court and other judges  in order to potentially shield himself from conviction on the corruption charges he is facing.(It's interesting to note that before his own legal probelms Netanyahu in 2012 said of the Supreme Court,"I believe that a strong, independent court allows for the existence of all other institutions in a democracy.")  

When Netanyhau fired Gallant  Israeli society erupted since security considerations are taken very seriously, and Netanyahu, who has always been "Mr. Security" seemed to be acting recklessly without taking these overarching concerns into consideration.  As hundreds of thousands of people flocked to the streets spontaneously in the middle of the night within hours of the announcement of Gallant's firing in scenes the likes of which we have never seen before, within hours a handful of  Members of Knesset from the Likud party were saying  they would back Netanyahu in halting the proposed reforms, as the nation was on fire. Channel 12 Israeli television had a poll that showed that 63% of Israelis were against the firing of Gallant, including a majority within the Likud. After Gallants' firing, the U.S had indicated it was "deeply concerned," and relations have soured in that Biden on Tuesday said "Israel can not continue down this road, and Netanyahu would not be invited to the U.S. in the "near term."
A day after Gallant was fired, we witnessed Netanyahu announce that the judicial reform would be halted to give a chance for dialogue to see if reforms to the judicial system could be reached on the basis of a broader consensus. This was  necessary to prevent a possible deterioration into a civil war.  Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party and a former IDF chief of staff, announced he was prepared to have a genuine dialogue, as did Yair Lapid, of Yesh Atid ,the leader of the opposition. We can only hope that everyone involved will rise to the occasion and act with responsibility for the betterment of the country 
However, it is important to note Netanyahu announced he was suspending the 2nd  and 3rd readings of proposed the judicial appointments bill until the next session of the Knesset, at the end of April, when they could be passed, on a narrow basis, if there is no wider agreement (Skeptics suggest Netanyahu has halted the judicial reforms now mainly in oder to dampen/weaken the protest movement, making it more difficult for the movement to rise again). 
I have believed for some weeks now that given the gaping rifts in Israeli society, it would be better to pass reforms pertaining to the judicial system once  both sides have had a genuine and thoughtful, constructive dialogue, such that any reforms  passed would garner a far wider consensus (i.e. hopefully they would garner the support of 75-80 Knesset members, not 61). A carefully negotiated compromise, done with patience rather than haste, is  a far preferable route to take rather than pass far reaching reforms on a narrow basis. A mediator, who has not previously headed an opposition party (as President Herzog has) could be a good idea.
I am also of the view that, sadly, Netanyahu has not managed this situation well and let it get way too out of hand before agreeing to halt the judicial reform. If Israeli society had not erupted following Gallant's firing, Netanyahu was going to pass the contentious bill relating to judicial appointments.
It remains to be seen whether this crisis we have been witnessing can be turned into an opportunity for constructive dialogue between sectors of Israeli society that will ultimately result in agreed upon reforms. If there is no agreement, then the streets could be on fire again. Yariv Levin, an architect of the judicial reform had indicated he feared that the reform, once it has been halted, will be buried for good. He also is reported to have said that he was not sure at this juncture that the reforms would have passed with the needed 61 votes, as some Likud MK's wanted a pause for dialogue.

The bill  relating to judicial appointments that Netanyahu's coalition has been proposing, has been described by the Times of Israel as follows:


‘Unlike the current system for judicial appointments, which requires a compromise between professional and political panel members to install Supreme Court justices, the bill will give a governing coalition full control over the first two appointments to the Supreme Court which open up during its tenure and require the support of one opposition member for a third appointment, and the support of both an opposition member and a judicial representative for a fourth.


It will also change the Supreme Court presidency appointment process, to allow the coalition to appoint the chief justice, further boosting its control over the appointment of justices to the High Court and potentially giving it full control over appointments to lower courts.”

Netanyahu has said that  by giving elected representatives more control over selecting top court judges, the law should correct the perception among proponents of the court that is a “closed club.” It might be noted that there have been very  few Mizrachi Jews on the court, which is something that ought to change in the future.

Another  part of the contentious reform/overhaul aims to limit the Supreme Courts jurisdiction and allow a simple majority of lawmakers to override the court’s decisions.  Yet even the Kohelet Policy Forum, a think tank behind the government’s judicial overhaul said his organization has advised lawmakers to drop their pursuit of a law that would allow the Knesset to override a Supreme Court decision to strike down legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to form a “national guard” to fight crime, a demand by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir as a condition for the latter’s agreement to delay the judicial reform/overhaul plan. 
All of the economists and former governors of The Bank of Israel who  I have been catching on Israeli television have outlined that  the passage of Netanyahu's judicial reforms, will cause the Israeli economy to suffer greatly, and already there is capital that has left the country.
Former U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren has described those  opposing the reforms as being.  “mostly from the political center and the left but with a significant representation from the moderate right.” He also wrote in the Times of Israel in February that a large swath of the Israeli society has come to view the Supreme Court as "alien, and even hostile.” He concluded that " The demonstrators, for their part, are clear in expressing what they don’t want, but silent on how they propose amending a status quo that has long been unraveling. "


On  Israeli television I also watched Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad chief who was appointed by Netanyahu and served under him. “If someone had told me even a year ago, or two or three, that the state would look like this, I’d have said they were hallucinating,” Pardo told Ilana Dayan on Channel 12’s Uvda program. “We’ve reached the greatest existential danger that we’ve faced since the War of Independence.”


A pair of  Israeli TV opinion polls showed that — before the judicial reform was delayed — Netanyahu's current coalition is crashing in support and would only get 53 or 54 seats instead of the 64 seats it has  today. Benny Gantz’s centrist National Unity gains many seats largely at the expense of the ruling Likud. The surveys would seem to suggest that there is a greater desire for consensus and broader agreement, boosting the pragmatic middle of the road Gantz, who is a former IDF Chief of Staff.


I don’t know what the future will bring--but this Passover, as we contemplate the meaning of freedom, we can only hope that healing voices of reason and calm in Israeli society emerge and take firm hold, such that, the deep rifts that have been on agonizing display that have pitted Israelis against each other begin to recede. And may these healing voices take hold as swiftly as possible.


To the extent that  changes to the judicial system are made, I hope they are only done after a negotiated settlement, and once they engender a truly broader base of support and consensus. After all, both those in favour of the reform/overhaul and those opposed to it will have to find a way to live together-- they have a shared fate. 




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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.