Labor strikes and protests by Israeli military officers have decried moves by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu to overhaul the judiciary system, potentially reducing the power of the country’s Supreme Court. After firing a defense minister who opposed the overhaul last week, Netanyahu agreed to delay the judicial review for now. While calls for judiciary reform have been long standing, critics say the Prime Minister aims to protect himself from the outcome of his corruption trial.

Ariel Ahram, chair of Virginia Tech's government and international affairs program, offers his perspective on what the controversy means for the country and the Middle East.

Q: Are the calls for reforming the power of the judiciary in Israel something new?

“There have been discussions for decades about reforming the judiciary in Israel.  Israel does not have a written constitution like the United States, so the status of the supreme court was always up for question.  In the last twenty years, the Israeli Supreme Court has taken on a more assertive role, following the example of the U.S.  It has tried to position itself as the final arbiter on issues like civil liberties and individual rights.  Secular Israelis and Israeli Arabs have often look to the court to defend their status (although often with disappointment).  But critics say that the court is overreaching.  An unelected judicial body shouldn't stop measures that are approved by the elected parliament.”

Q: What has prompted this current push for judicial reform in Israel?

“Netanyahu has a personal interest in weakening the court because he is under investigation for corruption and does not want the Supreme Court to disqualify him from office.  There are other members in his coalition who are similarly under indictment or even have even been convicted for corruption and so could be disqualified.  But many others in Israel, especially conservative and Jewish ethnonationalist groups, want to weaken or bypass the court because it stands in the way of their efforts to enforce their interpretation of Jewish law and encode Jewish supremacy in Israeli law.”

Q: What’s the significance of the national protests against judiciary reform?

“The labor protests are part of wider rebellion in Israeli society.  Even more important than the labor disruptions, hundreds of Israeli Army, Air Force, and Navy officers are refusing to serve in reserve duty.  These protests have really exposed deep divides among Israel's Jewish majority.  Israeli Arabs — perhaps 20% of the population — are largely on the sidelines so far.”

Q: Should the reforms go through, what will that mean for the Middle East?

“It's unclear.  Netanyahu is Israel's longest serving prime minister, so he has a lot of experience in Middle Eastern politics.  While always on the right, Netanyahu usually been pragmatic.  He has blocked some of the more aggressive measures favored by his coalition partners.  Now, however, Netanyahu has very little leeway.  He needs the coalition to survive.  Netanyahu could thus take more aggressive postures toward the Palestinian territories, including annexation of lands and possible forced deportation of the Arab population, in order to maintain his coalition.”    

About Ariel Ahram

Ariel Ahram is professor and chair of the government and international affairs program at the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs located in the Washington, D.C., metro area.  He is the author of War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa (Polity, 2020) that explores the causes and consequences of wars and conflicts in this troubled region, including in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon. More on his background here.

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