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What’s Next for Israel’s Judicial Overhaul?

Israeli lawmakers are this week advancing parts of a contentious plan by the right-wing government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to overhaul the country’s judiciary.

Mr. Netanyahu and his allies say they want to give elected officials more power and reduce the sway of unelected Supreme Court judges, who they say are overstepping their authority. Critics of the overhaul say that the move will undermine a pillar of Israel’s democracy and is an effort by the government to seize more power for itself.

The bill moved forward last week after a three-month hiatus during which the government and the opposition sought but failed to reach a compromise on the broader proposed overhaul. The government move set off massive protests in Israel, and another major demonstration is planned for Tuesday.

Voting on hundreds of clauses that make up the bill is expected to take several days, and Parliament is then expected to vote on the final legislation as early as this weekend, or, more likely, next week.

The stakes could hardly be higher for Mr. Netanyahu, and for Israel as a whole, over an issue that has deeply divided the country and sparked months of protests. Scrapping the judicial overhaul plan could mean the collapse of the government.

But pressing ahead without any broad public consensus could further strain Israel’s relations with the Biden administration, disrupt the economy and lead thousands of military reservists, a core part of Israel’s armed forces, to refuse to volunteer for duty.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has warned that the schism could lead to civil war.

Mr. Netanyahu is caught between stabilizing his coalition, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that have their own reasons for wanting to restrict the powers of the Supreme Court, and appeasing the fury of more liberal Israelis who oppose giving the government more control over the judiciary.

Outnumbered in Parliament, Israel’s opposition parties are powerless to vote down the judicial legislation on their own.

But powerful nonparliamentary groups — like military reservists, technology leaders, academicians, senior doctors and trade union leaders — are using their social leverage to persuade the government to back down. All of these players joined forces and compelled Mr. Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul a few months ago.

Reservists from prestigious units of the army are again threatening to stop volunteering if the overhaul moves ahead. Labor leaders have also said that they could call a general strike.

The dispute is part of a wider ideological and cultural standoff between the government and its supporters, who want to create a more religious and nationalist state, and their opponents, who hold a more secular and pluralist vision.

The governing coalition says the court has too much leeway to intervene in political decisions and that it undermines Israeli democracy by giving unelected judges too much power over elected lawmakers.

The coalition says the court has too often acted against right-wing interests — for instance by preventing some construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank or striking down certain privileges granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews, like exemption from military service.

To limit the court’s influence, the government seeks to stop its judges from using the concept of “reasonableness” to countermand decisions by lawmakers and ministers.

Reasonableness is a legal standard used by many judicial systems, including Australia, Britain and Canada. A decision is deemed unreasonable if a court rules that it was made without considering all relevant factors or without giving relevant weight to each factor, or by giving irrelevant factors too much weight.

The government and its backers say that reasonableness is too vague a concept, and one never codified in Israeli law. The court angered the government this year when some of its judges used the tool to bar Aryeh Deri, a veteran ultra-Orthodox politician, from serving in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. They said it was unreasonable to appoint Mr. Deri because he had recently been convicted of tax fraud.

Opponents fear that if the bill becomes law, the court will be much less able to prevent government overreach.

They say that the government, untrammeled by the reasonableness standard, may find it easier to end the prosecution of Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges.

In particular, some warn that the government would have more freedom to replace the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who oversees Mr. Netanyahu’s prosecution. Mr. Netanyahu denies any plan to disrupt his trial.

Critics also fear that the changes might allow the government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israeli history — to restrict civil liberties or undermine secular aspects of Israeli society.

The government initially tried to enact even more contentious bills that would increase its control over the selection of Supreme Court judges, restrict the court’s ability to override Parliament and give the legislature the right to override the court.

Mr. Netanyahu suspended those efforts in March, after a wave of strikes and protests shut down parts of the country, business leaders began to divest from the Israeli economy and a growing number of reserve soldiers said they would refuse to volunteer for duty.

The government then negotiated with opposition leaders for weeks in an effort to find a compromise. Mr. Netanyahu also promised not to proceed with the override proposal, one of the most contentious parts of the plan.

But the opposition quit those talks last month, after governing lawmakers obstructed the process by which new judges are appointed — a move that the opposition said undermined their faith in the negotiations.

In response, the government decided to move ahead with lower-profile aspects of the overhaul, principally scrapping the reasonableness mechanism.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting.

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Mohammad SHiblu

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