The new law limiting the powers of the judiciary is not irreversible, but the path ahead is uncertain.
A law passed by Israel’s parliament on Monday that would overhaul the judiciary and limit its powers has sent the country into uncharted territory, amid mass protests from the opposition.
The new legislation, known as the “reasonableness bill”, removes the ability of the Supreme Court to strike down government decisions deemed “unreasonable”.
The far-right government, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, says that the judges have gotten too strong and need to be reined in, while the opposition says the government is aiming to weaken the judiciary and prevent it from being able to maintain checks on the government.
The legal effects of the legislation – which is part of a wider judicial overhaul that the government has been pushing for – are likely to remain unclear for the weeks to come.
Here is what we know so far:
Is the new bill reversible?
The new law is not irreversible, but the path ahead is uncertain. Israel has never faced a similar challenge from the government before.
Monday’s bill was enacted as an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which make up the country’s constitutional framework.
Until now, the Supreme Court has never struck down any Basic Laws, only regular laws that violate Basic Laws. But it had the power to do so, and that power would disappear under the new “reasonableness” bill.
At least three civil society organisations have filed a petition to the Supreme Court asking that it disqualify the new law on the basis that it is in conflict with the country’s Basic Laws. Opposition leader Yair Lapid also said he would file a petition in the coming days.
Therefore, the opposition is now seeking to use the very tool that Monday’s bill aimed to undermine – putting the Supreme Court in an awkward position.
One legal argument the top court could use to disqualify the legislation would be that it violates Israel’s “core values”, arguing that the amendment is undemocratic. But it is unclear whether the bill constitutes a sufficient authoritarian turn to justify the decision.
What will the opposition do?
Israel’s divisions are likely to be widened by the passing of Monday’s bill. The country is facing popular unrest, labour strikes and a mutiny on the part of some in the military.
Growing numbers of military reservists have warned they will no longer report for duty if the government continues with its plan, putting Israel’s war readiness at risk.
Israeli doctors began a 24-hour strike and Israel Medical Association Chairman Zion Hagay said that physicians angered by the legislation were looking to move abroad.
The government has threatened disciplinary action against those on strike. Local media reported the government was seeking an injunction compelling doctors to return to work.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from the occupied West Bank, said the medical union had to get clearance from the labour court to ensure that healthcare workers would not be considered to be in dereliction of their duties.
A labour court eventually ordered the striking medical providers to go back to work, but many appointments had already been cancelled for the day.
What else is the government planning on doing?
Monday’s bill was passed as part of the government’s broader plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Additional plans for reform include major changes to the Basic Laws to reshape the balance of power between the Knesset and the High Court of Justice, splitting the attorney general’s role and limiting the ability to petition against government actions.
Carmiel Arbit, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, said Israelis expected the reforms to continue apace.
“As the most right-wing governing coalition in Israel’s history pursues what many unaffectionately call a ‘salami approach’ to reform — legislating to undercut the judiciary, slice by slice — Israel’s democratic institutions are positioned to be profoundly undermined,” Arbit said.
“In a country that lacks a constitution, the Supreme Court has been a critical buttress, preventing the passage and implementation of laws that would allow Israel’s ultra-religious parties to tyrannise its majority secular population,” the analyst added. “The result is indeed a crisis.”
Netanyahu said the upcoming Knesset summer recess until mid-October could be an opportunity to negotiate further changes to the judiciary, and he blamed the opposition for the failure to reach a compromise on the recently passed bill.
On Monday he sought to calm the opposition, saying he hoped to achieve consensus on any further legislation by November.
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