Opinion | Israel’s modification of its judicial system has negative implications for democracy


AP Photo | Tsafrir Abayov

Israelis are seen from above a protest against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right government that his opponents say threaten democracy and freedoms, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023

By Rachel Soloff, Opinions Editor

Mass protests have swept the streets of Tel Aviv for the past month as the Israeli government plans to revamp the judicial system and essentially do away with the democratic standards that keep the balances of power in check.

The bill — which passed in its first form last week — would allow the legislature to pick Supreme Court judges rather than consult with a nine-member committee of experts. The bill would also give the legislature the opportunity to overrule any decision that the court makes. This decision would essentially erode the balance of powers and give all control to the right-wing coalition which currently has the majority in the Israeli parliament. 

Decisions to weaken judicial systems in countries such as Poland and Hungary led to democratic backsliding in the former and authoritarianism in the latter. The independence of all three branches of government is crucial to provide checks and balances in a proper form of democracy. The proposed bill in Israel will lead to democratic backsliding and harsher laws against minority parties. Giving too much power to the Likud party in charge has negative implications on what the government of Israel will look like in the coming years.

The first part of the bill switches the power of choosing Supreme Court justices from knowledgeable people in the fields of law and government into the hands of whoever has the power in the legislature. Currently, Supreme Court justices in Israel are chosen via consensus between a nine-member committee of three Supreme Court judges, two members of the Israeli Bar Association, two government ministers and one member of the Knesset parliament from both the majority and minority parties. The bill proposes to give an automatic majority to the members of government on the committee, essentially silencing the members who know the rule of law. 

As we can see in the United States, allowing the government to choose judges in the Supreme Court politicizes this supposedly nonpartisan branch of government. Supreme Courts create a much-needed check on the amount of power the legislature and executive exert. However, when this branch is weakened, this check on power is illegitimate and only extends the powers of the other two branches. Silencing the voices of those on the committee who use their expertise rather than their politics to pick justices, pushes the court towards partisanship rather than what is best for the country.

The next part of the bill would allow the legislature to override rulings made by the Supreme Court with only 61 votes in the parliament to overrule and weaken the role of the attorney general — another role that is supposedly shielded from partisanship. These decisions would essentially rid the Supreme Court of any influence over legislation passed. If any ruling can be overruled by the legislature, then no ruling is concrete. 

The right-wing government knows this, which is precisely the reason why they want this bill passed. Cases about the settlements in the West Bank have been limited by the Supreme Court in the past. The settlements — which are illegal under international law — are largely controversial and have inflamed tensions in the conflict. Just three years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a law that would legalize these settlements, much to the anger of the right-wing coalition. This new bill seems to limit the power of the judiciary to spite them for disagreeing with laws created by the right-wing government — which is precisely why Israel needs to have a strong Supreme Court. 

Similarly, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset are angered by its more liberal decisions regarding religious morality. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that gender-segregated buses were illegal, a ruling which angered many ultra-Orthodox Israelis as they believe that men and women should not sit next to each other if they are not related or married. The Supreme Court also ruled in 2017 that Orthodox men would no longer be exempt from compulsory military service. Both of these rulings angered the ultra-religious Jews of Israel. The recent bill restricting the reach of the Supreme Court could allow these ultra-Orthodox parties to make laws for the mostly secular Israeli population in accordance with conservative Jewish law without much political pushback. 

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, two scholars of democracy, note democracies rarely die via violent coup d’etat — they die when democratic norms are ignored in favor of partisanship and power grabs. When the Supreme Court is demonized by the party in charge or its power is slowly weakened and given to the legislature, Israel’s democracy begins eroding. 

The large voice of opposition is a good sign — citizens are engaged and enraged with the laws put in place by their government. However, this is a turning point in the future of Israel’s democracy. They can choose to prioritize partisan wants and needs and allow democracy to backslide, or they can make a conscious effort to separate powers and allow checks on legislation. The choice could make or break Israel’s government as we know it, so let’s hope the government chooses democracy — before it’s too late.


Rachel Soloff writes primarily about the entertainment industry and how lame antisemites are. Write to her at [email protected].