Updated Jul 24, 2023 - World

What to know about Israel’s contentious judicial overhaul plan

A protester wearing a mask depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a protest against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul bill, in Tel Aviv on July 15. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

The Israeli parliament has passed the first bill of the Netanyahu government's controversial judicial overhaul plan in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition and took place amid mass anti-government protests.

Why it matters: The plan, which will weaken the Supreme Court and other democratic institutions, has faced opposition from some of Israel's closest allies, including the Biden administration, and it has already destabilized the country's economy and military.

What is the judicial overhaul plan?

The plan was first introduced less than a week after Netanyahu's coalition — the most right-wing in Israel's history — was sworn into power.

  • It includes a series of measures that will weaken Israel's judiciary. The bill that passed on July 24 significantly limits the Supreme Court's oversight of government actions and policies and ends the court's ability to strike down government decisions and appointments on the basis of "reasonability."
  • The plan initially included a measure that would have given the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority, but Netanyahu has said that piece of the overhaul has been dropped.

The plan also envisions changing the system for appointing judges and giving more power to politicians in the appointment process, though Netanyahu has said he will not allow one political side to have full control of the Supreme Court.

  • Additionally, the plan includes changing the law so that ministers would be able to install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that is not under their authority today.

Why is Netanyahu and his coalition pushing for the plan?

The governing coalition introduced the plan, which it has labeled "judicial reform," much earlier than expected, as the Supreme Court prepared to rule on whether the appointment of Aryeh Deri, a key Netanyahu ally, should be revoked because of his past criminal convictions. The court ultimately ruled against Deri's appointment.

  • "People use the immense power they were given in order to replace the will of the people — this will turn against them," Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who introduced the judicial overhaul plan, said in January in solidarity with Deri.
  • Netanyahu called the bill that passed in July a "needed democratic step."

Between the lines: The judicial overhaul plan was introduced as Netanyahu stands trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.

  • The Israeli opposition has warned that Netanyahu is pushing for the new plan as part of his effort to stop the trial.
  • Several ministers from Netanyahu's party in recent weeks called for the firing of the attorney general. Such a scenario could be a key phase in stopping the trial.

What does Israel's opposition say?

Israel's opposition has blasted the plan as undemocratic, labeled it as a "constitutional coup," and warned it threatens to tear Israeli society apart.

  • The opposition boycotted the final vote on the first bill, which passed in its most extreme form.
  • "Today we saw an unprecedented show of weakness by Netanyahu," Lapid tweeted after the first overhaul bill passed.
  • "There is no prime minister in Israel. Netanyahu has become a puppet on a string of Messianic extremists," he added, referring to members of the coalition who threatened to bring the government down if the bill didn't pass.

Who is protesting in Israel?

Tens of thousands of Israelis across the country have protested the judicial overhaul for months.

  • Protesters have marched from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, rallied outside government officials' homes, and forced the country’s workers’ union to temporarily suspend operations at Israel's international airport. At times, the protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people.

Thousands of Israeli reservists, including fighter pilots and members of the intelligence, cyber and special operations units in the IDF, have said they will not report to duty if the first bill of the judicial overhaul passed. Following the vote, many notified their commanders that they will go through with their threat.

  • That could have dire consequences for Israel's military establishment. The air force is particularly reliant on reservists.

The plan has also drawn opposition from legal scholars and members of the judiciary.

  • When the plan was initially introduced in its most extreme form in January, Israeli Supreme Court President Esther Hayut warned it was aimed at "crushing" the independent judiciary and, if implemented, will "deal a fatal blow" to the country's democracy.
Netanyahu and Levin during the Knesset vote. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Netanyahu and Levin during the Knesset vote on July 24. Photo: Noam Moskowitz/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Didn't Bibi suspend the plan for negotiations to take place?

Yes, Netanyahu suspended the legislation in March following mass protests, including by reservists, nationwide strikes, and increased pressure from Israel's closest allies.

  • Those talks, which were being led by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, collapsed in June after Netanyahu unsuccessfully tried to conduct a parliamentary maneuver to delay the formation of the committee that appoints judges.
  • Herzog attempted just before the first bill's passage to reach a last-minute compromise, but Netanyahu refused to accept the opposition's demand to pass a law that would suspend any further judicial overhaul legislation for a year.

What do Biden and other U.S. leaders say?

The Biden administration and Democratic congressional leaders have repeatedly expressed concerns over the judicial overhaul and called on Netanyahu to seek a compromise on judicial reform.

  • Just before Netanyahu announced the suspension of the plan in March, Biden sent a strongly worded private message to the Israeli leader. He later told reporters that he hoped Netanyahu "will walk away" from the judicial overhaul.
  • In a statement to Axios a day before the Knesset passed the first bill of the plan, Biden said that from the perspective of Israel’s friends in the United States, "it looks like the current judicial reform proposal is becoming more divisive, not less."
  • "Given the range of threats and challenges confronting Israel right now, it doesn’t make sense for Israeli leaders to rush this — the focus should be on pulling people together and finding consensus," he added.

Between the lines: Netanyahu hasn't visited the White House for a meeting with Biden since taking office seven months ago.

  • Biden warned in March the Israeli prime minister wasn't going to get an invitation anytime soon. In July, Biden and Netanyahu spoke by phone and the U.S. president said he hoped to see the Israeli leader in the U.S. before the end of the year.
  • Netanyahu called the comments an "invitation," but the Biden administration appeared to downplay the remarks, saying no details, including the meeting's location, have been determined.

What does the judicial overhaul plan mean for Palestinians?

The judicial overhaul could have significant ramifications for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.

  • The Israeli Supreme Court has been the only institution that Palestinians in the West Bank can go to defend their rights, mainly regarding land disputes with Israeli settlers.

What to watch

The anti-government protests are expected to continue.

  • The Histadrut, Israel's main workers' union, announced minutes after Knesset's vote on the first overhaul bill that it was starting the process of going on a general strike in the country. This process can take a few days.
  • The medical workers union announced a 24-hour general strike in all hospital medical institutions in the country starting July 25.

Shortly after the vote, a pro-democracy nongovernmental organization filed an appeal to the Supreme Court against the new law.

  • It's unclear when Netanyahu's coalition will move forward with the next part of the overhaul, which many in the country believe will likely address the appointment of judges. It's not expected, however, before the Knesset's summer recess ends in October.
  • Netanyahu said after the first bill passed that he is willing to give four months for talks with the opposition on a comprehensive agreement on additional parts of the overhaul.
  • But the opposition rejected the call, saying it was an "empty" proposal. "Netanyahu is held hostage by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Minister of Internal Security Itamar Ben-Gvir. They are taking the decisions and he is doing what they tell him," Lapid said.
Go deeper