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Why are half a million people protesting in Israel?

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More than half a million people have joined protests in Israel over a plan to reduce court powers proposed by the Netanyahu Government.
Protests in Israel over a plan to reduce court powers

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sacked his Defence Minister as public anger grows over a controversial proposal to change Israel’s legal system.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the Government’s plan to reduce the power of the courts, prompting open speculation about a possible “civil war”.

Here’s what you need to know.

Background

At the root of the controversy is a dispute about how much power the courts should have to overrule the Government.

Israel’s Government is formed by whoever controls its parliament (the Knesset). Usually, this is an alliance of parties, led by a Prime Minister.

Israel also has a Supreme Court which can review and strike down laws (similar to the U.S. Supreme Court).

Israel’s political system

The relative powers of the Knesset and the Court are contested because Israel does not have a constitution to definitively set out their powers.

Instead, Israel’s governing structures and individual rights have been set out by laws called the ‘Basic Laws’, which the Knesset can change.

Since the 1990s, following an update to the Basic Laws, the Supreme Court has assumed a more active role in reviewing and striking down laws deemed to violate the Basic Laws. This has drawn anger from conservatives who believe judges are biased against them.

Netanyahu’s Government

This tension between conservatives and the Court has escalated following the re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu as PM last year. The right-wing Netanyahu has previously governed in alliance with centre parties but his new alliance includes far-right extremists.

The Government has clashed with the Supreme Court, which has opposed many of its policies including expansion into Palestinian occupied territories and military service exemptions for Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Israelis.

Plan to reduce court powers

Netanyahu and his Justice Minister Yariv Levin are proposing to effectively eliminate the Court’s review powers.

The changes would allow the Knesset to exempt laws from review and to re-legislate any overturned laws. It would restrict the scope of what the Court could consider and require 12 out of 15 judges to agree to overturn a law. It would also give the Government control over Supreme Court appointments.

The Government is also proposing limits on the ability to remove a PM and restrictions on who could run in elections.

Fierce debate

The Government argues the changes are democratic, putting more power into the elected Knesset.

Critics say that the proposed legislation will remove checks and balances currently in place in the Israeli court system and could essentially hand absolute power to the government of the day, jeopardising the rights of individuals.

Critics say this is of particular concern given Israel’s governments are typically alliances of parties with no single party holding a majority in its own right.

Mounting anger

There have been mass protests in Israel against the plan to reduce court powers over the last few weeks, especially in Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s largest cities.

Several key opposition figures say they will boycott the deciding vote on the laws and former PM Ehud Barak has called for civil disobedience.

President Isaac Herzog, who normally has a ceremonial role, sought to come up with a compromise but was unsuccessful. The Government last week proposed some changes to its plans for the judge appointment process, but this did not satisfy critics.

Defence Minister sacked

A few hours ago, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant was sacked after publicly suggesting the Government should delay its proposal because of the “clear, immediate and tangible threat to the security of the state”.

This has prompted fresh protests, including outside of Netanyahu’s official residence. There have been threats of a widespread workplace strike and questions about whether Israel’s military has lost confidence in the Government. Several ministers have now spoken in favour of delaying the plan and there are some reports Netanyahu is considering doing so.

Turbulent times

The turmoil comes at a turbulent time in the country.

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians in central Israel, Gaza and the West Bank has intensified. According to the latest UN data, 83 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed so far this year, following the deaths of at least 191 Palestinians and 21 Israelis in 2022 – the deadliest year since estimates began in 2005.

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