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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Israel in Turmoil as Netanyahu’s Judicial Overhaul Bill Sparks Protests

Israeli doctors declared a general strike on Tuesday, and more army reservists asked to halt service in a public backlash over the hard-right government’s ratification of the first stage of a judicial overhaul that critics say endangers democracy. The country’s top judges cut short a trip to Germany and returned home to help with the crisis. The heads of the Israel Medical Association and the Supreme Court warned that the doctors’ oath to their patients “will not be fulfilled in a regime that does not accept the principle of reasonableness.”

The bill, passed by most lawmakers Monday, restricts the Supreme Court’s power to overrule laws deemed unreasonable, including those enacted by the Knesset and the ministerial cabinet. The government argues that the Supreme Court has become an insular, elitist group and overstepped its role, taking on issues that should be left to politicians and other branches of government.

Critics warn that the measure, which takes effect this week, could lead to a more authoritarian government and hurt rights not enshrined in Israel’s quasi-constitutional basic laws, like minority rights and freedom of expression. They also worry that it could give Netanyahu a tool to undermine the independence of the judiciary and bolster his power in a system where he governs with coalitions in parliament and appoints his cronies to critical posts.

Bending to a wave of protests, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that he was pausing his plan for the judiciary to avoid civil war. He promised to seek consensus on any future legislation by November.

Despite the stalemate, Netanyahu’s hard-line partners in his ultra-Orthodox Jewish coalition said they would submit legislation shoring up exemptions from military service for their constituents studying at seminaries. The announcement angered opponents of the reform, who have vowed to escalate their demonstrations in the coming weeks ahead of the Passover and Easter holidays.

The controversy has sparked a rare split between the ruling Likud party and the broader opposition. Many secular members of the Knesset oppose the reform and want to limit the Supreme Court’s power. But the ultra-Orthodox members of the party support it because they believe the current judiciary allows too many secular Jews to avoid military service.

The controversy has deepened tensions between the government and the Supreme Court, which has ruled on a wide range of issues in recent years that have irked the right-wing and religious factions in the Knesset. The Supreme Court has argued that the current judiciary is not sufficiently independent of political considerations, a charge the government disputes. The Supreme Court has pushed for changes to the law on judicial appointments and more power over the appointment of other judges. It has also overturned lower court rulings that have hampered its ability to carry out its constitutional oversight duties.

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