Israel removes supreme court power to oppose government action with law criticised as threat to democracy

Yitzhak Herzog warns ‘We are in a state of national emergency’ ahead of judicial reform Bill being passed

Israel’s parliament on Monday passed into law a Bill removing the power of the supreme court to overrule government actions it considers unreasonable.

The controversial measure is the first part of the right-wing government’s judicial overhaul package, which opponents claim undermines Israeli democracy and has triggered an unprecedented wave of protests over the last seven months.

All 64 coalition members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, voted in favour as opposition lawmakers left the chamber in protest.

Defence minister Yoav Gallant voted with the government despite saying earlier that there was a critical need for compromise after some 10,000 military reservists, including more than 1,100 pilots and navigators, announced they would no longer serve what they termed a non-democratic regime.


Contacts aimed at achieving a last-minute compromise continued throughout the morning but ultimately failed. Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in a televised address to the nation on Monday night, called the passage of the law a “necessary step for democracy” and accused the opposition of torpedoing efforts to reach a compromise.

Opposition politician Benny Gantz vowed to cancel the law and erase it from the statute book.

President Yitzhak Herzog, who spearheaded the mediation efforts, issued a dire warning just hours before the vote. “We are in a state of national emergency. Now is the moment for responsibility,” he wrote. “The citizens of Israel thirst for hope and expect responsibility and leadership.”

Minister for justice Yariv Levin spoke in the Knesset immediately after the approval of the law. “We have taken the first step in the important historical process of correcting the judicial system, and restoring the powers that were taken from the government and the Knesset over many years,” he said.

As the vote took place, some 20,000 protesters demonstrated outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, chanting “democracy or rebellion”. Throughout the day, police used water cannons to disperse protesters and keep them away from the Knesset compound.

In the evening, angry protests erupted in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and other locations. Police used foul smelling skunk water to disperse activists in Jerusalem who blocked the main Begin highway that runs through the city. “The dictatorial law passed. Head out to the streets! Israel will not be a dictatorship,” read a statement circulated by the protest movement.

Following the vote, opposition leader Yair Lapid said the opposition would file a petition against the legislation with the supreme court. “We will not give up, we will not turn into Hungary and Poland,” he said. “It is a sad day. A day of Knesset destruction. A day of gratuitous hatred.”

Tel Aviv’s main share indices tumbled more than 2.5 per cent after the vote in the Knesset and the shekel extended losses against the dollar to 1.2 per cent.

The Biden administration considered it “unfortunate” that the Knesset ratified part of Mr Netanyahu’s contested judicial reform plan, a White House spokesperson said. “We believe that for major democratic changes you need to work for consensus,” the US official said. “We urge Israeli leaders to work toward a consensus-based approach through political dialogue.”

The judicial overhaul has torn Israel in two, bringing hundreds of thousands of people from both sides of the divide onto the streets. Monday’s vote doesn’t mark the end to the chaos: it may be just the beginning.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem