Israel Erupts in Protest, Netanyahu On The Back Foot
Lessons from the Israeli Conundrum
The entire world was surprised when life in Israel came to a standstill on March 24 due to a general strike called by the country’s largest trade union – supported by a vast array of centrist and liberal forces. The massive protest, affecting even Israel’s diplomatic missions, was in protest against the right-wing and nationalist coalition government’s plan to ‘overhaul’ the rules of selection of Supreme Court judges and to drastically curtail the powers of the Supreme Court.
Through the “overhaul,” the government wants its representatives to have an automatic majority in the Committee that selects judges for the Supreme Court. That will effectively mean total government control over the appointment of the judges.
In tandem with the bid to bring the judiciary under government control, the government also wants to pass a law that would allow public servants to keep money gifted to them for the purpose of covering medical and legal fees. The Opposition slammed this alleged attempt at providing relief to the PM who is under trial for accepting huge sums as gifts from his late cousin for fighting court cases. The High Court of Justice held this act to be improper and asked Netanyahu to return the money. He is yet to comply with that order.
For quite some time, the coalition government was literally up in arms against the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court for allegedly arrogating huge powers to itself and indulging in judicial activism. The government also alleged that the composition of the Supreme Court was not representative of the diversity of Israeli society.
To set right these alleged ‘distortions’ Prime Minister Netanyahu wanted to clip the wings of the judges through the proposed legislation which includes a provision whereby the Parliament can nullify a judgement of the Supreme Court. That will severely restrict the powers of the Court to strike down a law on grounds of being unconstitutional.
The opponents of the proposed law have been protesting for weeks against it. Its passage, they say, would strike at the very root of democracy by giving unrestricted powers to the executive by crippling the judiciary. The simmering discontent boiled over after Netanyahu fired his defence minister who had opposed the move as it would create problems within the armed forces.
In a massive display of popular disapproval of the proposed legislation people from all walks of life, belonging to the centrist-secular section of the Israeli population, exploded in protest against the executive’s moves against the judiciary. They took to the street in an unprecedented non-violent show of strength to protect the independence of the justice system against the intrusion by the government. The country’s labour unions joined the movement and students and teachers came out of the educational institutions to voice their opposition to the proposed legislation.
The upheaval sent ripples across the world and caused consternation among Israel’s foreign allies, investors, and other important elements beyond its borders. It even threatened Israel’s relations with its most important ally - the United States.
Facing such a popular and strong backlash, and perhaps realising that steamrolling the controversial bill might cause more harm than it would be beneficial, Netanyahu decided not to proceed with it for now. President Herzog has stepped in and both the supporters and opponents of the bill are in dialogue with him to resolve the issue. The opponents have warned the government that their movement will continue till the bill is killed.
The government’s stepping back on the issue – only the future will tell if it is just a tactical move – has elated the Israeli civil society. Hailing the movement and its success, Prof. Yedidia Stern, President of the Jewish People Policy Institute, and Professor Emeritus at Bar-Ilan University has this to say:
“In view of the danger that the Leviathan – the executive branch – will take over the judicial branch, Israeli citizens are forging an impenetrable defensive wall with their own bodies (sic). The Israeli center understands that only it – you and I and every Israeli patriot – can get the state and our society out of the emergency room into which it was thrown, battered and bloody.
“How much power there is in nonviolent civil disobedience! Hundreds of thousands have taken to our streets in the spirit of Gandhi and King, their only weapons are flags, signs, megaphones, and a general strike…..
“We Israelis are accustomed to the nobility of heroism in battle. This time we are experiencing a different, equally important form of valor, civil heroism. Heroism in battle grants us life and political independence; civil heroism ensures our freedom and infuses life and political independence with appropriate meaning.”
Tussle between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary – the three pillars of democracy – is a common problem in many democracies, including India. The executive mostly considers the judiciary a hindrance to the implementation of the former’s policies. It especially hates the power of the Supreme Court to strike down laws passed by the legislature if they violate the constitution or its basic tenets.
Although in his most recent speeches, the union law minister seems to have softened his stand a little, it has not escaped the notice of observes that for many months, if not years, there has been a clear attempt to have a judiciary that will not queer the pitch for the government by giving unpalatable judgements.
Important functionaries of the government have been alleging, among other things, that
. through the Collegium system, judges are appointing judges. That is unacceptable, and the government must have an enhanced role in the selection of judges.
. the Supreme Court is often stepping into the domain of the executive in violation of the doctrine of separation of powers.
. the judiciary has arrogated to itself far more power than provided in the constitution of India.
In addition, an idea has been floated that in the matter of legislation, the ‘Parliament is supreme.’ No less a person than the Vice President of India has gone on record saying that he does not subscribe to the idea that the judiciary can strike down amendments passed by the legislature on the ground that they violate the ‘Basic Structure’ of the Constitution.
It is a surprising statement from a former Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court, who is supposed to be aware that a judgement of the Supreme Court is the law of the land till its foundation is removed by legislation passed by the Parliament. The Parliament has no powers to directly reverse a decision of the Supreme Court.
The government seems to be sending feelers about its thinking on ‘judicial reforms’ by speaking through its ministers and others. Taking the cue from its leaders, the ruling party's supporters are playing the cheerleaders' role. Democracy and rule of law were never dear to their heart and therefore it is no surprise that the whole ‘Parivar’ would join hands in denigrating the higher judiciary – the one institution in which the people of this country still have some faith and trust.
Like in India, in Israel also the centrist and liberals were constantly maligned and abused by the rightists. An impression was created that the coalition government could do whatever it liked and ride roughshod over the opposition. However, the way the silent majority from all walks of life found their voice and demonstrated that when it is a question of saving the constitution and democracy, it could force even the strongest ruler to step back.
The developments in Israel prove that the people will not remain mute spectators and meekly acquiesce to everything the executive does. When they break their silence even the strongest of dictators has to retract its step. That is the loud and clear message from Israel for all who care to listen.
Sandip Mitra retired from the Indian Foreign Service. Views expressed here are the writer’s own.