Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law on Monday that strips the Supreme Court of its power to block government decisions, the first part of a judicial overhaul that has sparked six months of street protests and criticism from the White House.
The new law abolishes Israel‘s “reasonableness standard”, eliminating the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn government decisions it deems unreasonable. It is part of a package of bills proposed by the government earlier this year, which is seeking to overhaul the judicial system in the country.
Proponents of the plan say it is necessary to restore the balance of power between government branches, while opponents say it will remove checks and balances and undermine the independence of the judicial system.
The law was passed by 64 votes to zero, after opposition lawmakers left the parliament in protest when compromise talks broke down. Ironically, appeals have been lodged against the new law with the Supreme Court.
“We have taken the first step in a historic process to correct the judicial system,” Justice Minister Yariv Levin said following the vote.
However, opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the coalition of abusing its power, and said he would petition Israel’s Supreme Court against the new law.
“This is a complete breaking of the rules of the game,” Lapid said. “The government and coalition can choose what direction the state goes in, but it can’t decide the character of the state.”
“This is a sad day, a day of our home’s destruction, of needless hatred, and look at the coalition celebrating,” he added.
Ahead of the vote and after, thousands of protesters in Jerusalem blocked the roads leading to Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, with police using water cannons to remove them. Thousands more gathered in Tel Aviv, with protests expected throughout the night.
The protesters chanted slogans such as “Bibi go home” and “Save democracy”, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges and has been accused of undermining democratic institutions.
Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has claimed that he is a victim of a political witch-hunt orchestrated by his opponents and the media.
The US administration has also expressed concern over Israel’s judicial reform plans, saying they could erode Israel’s democratic values and its rule of law.
In a statement issued last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “We urge Israel’s government and its leaders to uphold their longstanding commitment to democratic principles and avoid actions that would undermine them.”
He added: “We believe that maintaining Israel’s strong democracy is essential for securing its future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
The judicial reform plan has also been criticized by human rights groups, legal experts and former judges, who have warned that it could lead to politicization of the judiciary and erosion of human rights.
Former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak said in an interview with Haaretz last month that the plan was “an attempt to destroy democracy”.
He said: “The Supreme Court is not only a court that decides disputes between citizens or between citizens and authorities. It is also a court that protects democracy.”
He added: “If you take away from it its power to review reasonableness, you take away from it its power to protect democracy.”
The government has defended its plan as a way to address public dissatisfaction with the judicial system and to make it more accountable and efficient.
It has also argued that the Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds and interfered with the executive and legislative branches.
The government plans to pass more bills in the coming weeks as part of its judicial overhaul, including one that would allow parliament to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority vote.