What’s Next for Israel’s Judicial Overhaul?

Israelis protesting against their government’s judicial overhaul plan have been brandishing giant plastic salamis to symbolize what they fear is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to pass the contentious legislation slice by slice over time, making it more digestible to a wary public.

Critics of the plan, which would limit and weaken the powers of the independent judiciary and boost the authority of the elected government, compare the more gradual “salami tactics” approach to the method they say the Polish leadership used to curb democratic institutions in that country over the past decade.

The tactic allows Mr. Netanyahu to appease his hard-line coalition partners, who insist on seeing at least some progress on the judicial overhaul plan, while attempting to make the changes easier for the public to swallow after Israel’s figurehead president, Isaac Herzog, warned that the schism in the country could lead to civil war.

“The new piecemeal approach, legislating chapter by chapter, is obviously a lot more sophisticated politically,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Jerusalem. “You bring one issue at a time into the political discourse,” he said, making it more difficult for opponents to mobilize protests, while the question of whether there is more to come remains ambiguous.

Parliament voted on Tuesday in favor of a piece of legislation to advance the judicial overhaul plan, setting off another tumultuous day of protests in the deeply divided country. That bill needs to pass two more votes to become law, and the government appears set on holding the final vote before Parliament breaks for summer recess at the end of this month.

The bill in question would bar the Israeli courts from using the legal standard of “reasonableness” to strike down government decisions in the realm of policy or appointments, removing one of its main tools of judicial oversight. A parliamentary committee on Wednesday began preparing the bill for second and third readings.

The bill moved forward after a three-month hiatus during which the government and the opposition sought but failed to reach a compromise to calm the waters.

Israeli legal experts say there is an argument for curtailing the court’s use of the vague standard of reasonableness, which has never been defined under Israeli law. Mr. Netanyahu said this week that the judicial change was “not the end of democracy but rather the strengthening of democracy.”

But many legal scholars have denounced what they call the drastic version of the plan that has been drafted by the government, saying it could be used by Mr. Netanyahu to replace the attorney general and halt his own trial on charges of corruption. The premier has denied any such motives and any wrongdoing.

It’s hard to know. The current bill, while controversial, does not include some of the most contentious changes proposed earlier by Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition.

The question in many people’s minds is whether Mr. Netanyahu will stop after this bill, hoping it will appease the forces that arrayed against him in March, bringing parts of the country to a virtual standstill. Or he could make the changes piecemeal, as the opposition fears.

An example of how opaque the situation is: In an interview last week, Mr. Netanyahu said he had thrown out a particularly divisive part of the plan that would allow Parliament to override Supreme Court decisions. But several of his ministers have since said it remains on the agenda.

One of the government’s other contentious proposals earlier this year was to change the makeup of the committee that selects the country’s judges and effectively give the government this power. The bill to accomplish this was suspended after the stormy wave of protests in March, but it could be brought back to Parliament for approval at any time.

Avichai Mandelblit, the former attorney general who was appointed by Mr. Netanyahu and then oversaw his indictment, told Israeli television this week that the proposed legislation puts Israel “on the brink of dictatorship.”

Mr. Netanyahu is caught between stabilizing his coalition, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that want to restrict the powers of the Supreme Court, and the fury of more liberal Israelis who are likely to ramp up the protests if and when the “reasonableness” bill comes up for a final vote.

But whether Mr. Netanyahu will press on after that with the other elements of the judicial overhaul remains unclear.

“Netanyahu remains very ambiguous about whether this will be the last chapter, whereas other members of the government are very explicit about their intention to continue,” Mr. Plesner said. “Nobody really knows.”

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

But the popular backlash has come from the centers of power of Israeli society, including hundreds of volunteers in the most elite ranks of the military reserves, along with people from the vaunted high-tech industry, academia, the medical profession and the powerful trade unions. All of these power players joined forces and compelled Mr. Netanyahu to pause the judicial overhaul plan a few months ago.

Reservists from various prestigious units of the army are again threatening to stop volunteering if the judicial overhaul moves ahead.

Arnon Bar-David, the chairman of the Histadrut, the main labor union, called on Mr. Netanyahu on Tuesday to “stop the insane chaos in Israeli society.” He stopped short of threatening an imminent general strike but told union leaders: “When I feel that things have gone too far, we will use our strength.”

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