A divisive political conflict has roiled Israel for weeks now, following a government proposal to give the country’s legislature enormous new powers over the judicial branch. In January, shortly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Cabinet took power, the government put forward a draft law that would make it far more difficult for the Supreme Court to void legislation—and that would allow the ruling coalition to appoint judges, now appointed by a committee of mostly unelected officials. The bill would also enable the Knesset, Israel’s legislature, to overrule any Supreme Court decision by a simple majority vote.

The proposal triggered immediate and fierce opposition. Right away, President Isaac Herzog asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who’d drafted the bill, to reconsider it. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis kicked off protests throughout the country, which have continued for the past eight weeks. On March 1, police turned water cannons on protesters and threw stun grenades at them in Tel Aviv. Even some of the country’s staunchest international allies have spoken out against the proposal, with U.S. President Joe Biden emphasizing the fundamental democratic importance of an independent judiciary and of finding consensus for fundamental political changes.

Netanyahu’s Cabinet says the draft law would restore balance between unelected judges and elected officials, while opponents say the law would destroy judicial independence and undermine Israel’s democratic system. What's happening to Israel's political environment?

Nimrod Goren is a senior fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute and the president of Mitvim—the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Goren sees the proposed law as formed by different agendas, a kind of political storm induced from Netanyahu’s personal interests and his coalition partners’ political interests. The government may have wrongly anticipated the extent and intensity of the response, but the coalition Netanyahu now depends on appears adamant about pushing the bill through. Yet vast numbers in the Israeli public appear at least as adamant about resisting the law, through protests and other actions. The passage of the bill, Goren says, would set democracy in the country back in ways that would be difficult to undo; but the public’s reaction, meanwhile, is a remarkable counter that’s pressing democracy forward in ways that could have their own lasting effects.

Eve Valentine: What does the Israeli government want with this law?

Nimrod Goren: What the government wants goes far beyond the law itself. The law is part of a strategy. Similarly to laws passed in Hungary or Poland, it would effectively eliminate the judiciary’s independence. So the implications of the law go not just to the judiciary but to the very pillars of the Israeli democratic system.

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