Israel’s Government Faces Increasing Pressure Abroad Over Judicial Reform
Echoing protests at home, the international community – mainly Israel’s close allies – have also raised warning flags over the controversial legislation
As Israel’s government moves ahead with a massive reform of the country’s judicial system, there has been increasing international pressure on the coalition, including calls to cancel the visits of Israeli government members and protests in international capitals.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was scheduled to traveled to Berlin on Wednesday. Protestors, many of them Israeli expats, are expected to greet Netanyahu in Germany with demonstrations. In the coming weeks, he also is scheduled to travel to London.
Netanyahu’s visit to Rome last week also was accompanied with protests.
On Tuesday, hundreds of Israeli writers and artists addressed a letter to the German and British ambassadors to Israel, calling on them to cancel the Netanyahu visit to their countries.
The Israeli government has come under heavy domestic criticism as a result of the legal reforms it is promoting and shepherding through the legislative process. The international community, mainly Israel’s close allies, have also raised warning flags.
The foundation of the relations between Israel and other democracies is the shared value. It makes sense that Israeli allies will be concerned.
The coalition sees the judicial overhaul as long overdue. It believes the courts have gained too much power in recent decades, often intervening in political matters. Opponents of the reforms, who say they constitute a judicial coup, are concerned the courts will be significantly weakened, posing a serious threat to the future of Israeli democracy. They also believe the move is personally motivated by the Israeli premier who is on trial on corruption charges.
For over two months, the opposition has been holding massive demonstrations against the reforms, gathering tens of thousands of Israelis in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and dozens of cities throughout the country.
Israel’s allies abroad have been more hesitant about directly intervening in an internal matter. The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has urged Netanyahu to engage in dialogue with the opposition on the reforms. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with representatives of Israeli civil society during a visit to the region earlier this year. It was an unprecedented move by the top American diplomat, a signal that the US is carefully eyeing developments in Israel.
“The foundation of the relations between Israel and other democracies is the shared values,” said Arkady Mil-Man, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia. “It makes sense that Israeli allies will be concerned.”
Throughout the Blinken visit, and during visits by other American officials, the shared values were repeatedly underscored as if to warn against any change.
“The international community has responsibility to do this,” said Michael Harari, a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former senior Israeli diplomat. “They are telling Israel that if it sees itself as part of the international community of democratic states, there are certain things that are expected of it.”
The judicial reforms include giving the parliament the ability to override Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority. In addition, politicians will have greater influence in the appointment of all judges – including Supreme Court judges, and legal advisers to ministries will be political appointments instead of civil servants. The coalition has been speedily advancing the legislation in recent weeks in an attempt to complete much of the process by the end of this month.
In a meeting with Netanyahu last month in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron also reportedly warned the prime minister of the consequences of the far-reaching judicial reform. Media reports said the French leader told Netanyahu that France would see the adoption of such reforms as a signal Israel was making a departure from democracy.
Joab Rosenberg, an Israeli entrepreneur and a former senior officer in an Israeli military intelligence unit, has been in the US in recent days with other veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. They have been expressing their “deep concern about Israel’s new anti-democratic legislation,” in meetings with senior American senators.
“This self-coup should not go through, it threatens Israel’s national security,” Rosenberg tweeted after meetings in Washington. Rosenberg also met with members of several Jewish congregations.
“The US Jewish community is the most important Jewish community outside of Israel,” said Mil-Man. “This is a leading and strategic security interest for the Israeli government to be in good relations with this community.”
Netanyahu, who was sworn in as prime minister in December 2022, has yet to be invited to the White House for a meeting with US President Joe Biden. Downplayed in Israel, it is a telling sign.
“This is unusual,” Harari explained. “Such a delay is a message to Israel, that usually enjoys free access to the White House. But whether Netanyahu will change his course, that is a whole different question.”
A veteran statesman, Netanyahu is a well-known actor on the international stage. He has often been at odds with Israel’s allies regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. He has also positioned himself as a hardliner on the Iranian nuclear program, frequently not in line with allies who have adopted a subtler approach.
“It is often hard to explain how changes that happen within Israel, that could be considered legitimate as undertaken by an elected government, in the end have an effect on Israel’s position in the international arena,” said Harari.
The Israeli prime minister has tried to reassure Israelis and international audiences that the nature of Israeli democracy will not change after the reforms, but the increasing division within the country and the advancing of the legislation with no real dialogue on a compromise could cast a shadow over Israel’s international relations.
“Netanyahu understands the problematic position, but he has different interests. Otherwise, he would have stopped this,” said Mil-Man.
Overhauling Israel’s legal system coupled with a far-right government in power could also lead to a change in how Israel manages its conflict with the Palestinians. Members of the current government believe Israel needs to fully annex the territories in the West Bank, which now are under joint Israeli-Palestinian control. Aside from judicial reform, other laws and policies being promoted are indicative of a new direction for the country. From granting immunity from investigation to soldiers to the retroactive legalization of previously illegal outposts in the West Bank, the Israeli government appears to be changing course.
Meanwhile, the world is watching.
“So far, the messages were very careful to not be seen as interfering in the affairs of a democratic state, but have conveyed the concern both on the reforms and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which are closely connected,” said Harari.
Israel could find itself ousted from international agreements and there will be widespread ramifications
On Tuesday, the European Parliament Plenary held a discussion on the “deterioration of democracy in Israel and consequences on the occupied territories.”
In a statement responding to the plenary discussion, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said he “rejects any attempts to intervene in the internal political affairs of Israel.”
Last month, Cohen met with his German counterpart in Berlin. In a press conference following their meeting, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock told Cohen her country “has concerns regarding some legislative projects in Israel” and spoke about the shared principles the two allies share.
She also told Cohen that the Israeli government was making a “major mistake” in promoting capital punishment for people convicted of terrorist acts. It was a very public reprimand.
“This is very significant, especially because it was made publicly,” said Harari. “It could add tensions between the countries.”
Despite its relative financial and military strength, Israel is highly dependent on the support its allies give it in the international arena. These bonds rely heavily on shared values and on Israel priding itself on being a democracy.
It was Baerbock who told Cohen in Berlin that Israel not having the death penalty “was always an impressive argument for those of us who have defended Israel against unfair criticism on the international stage.”
This support could now be conditional.
“There is damage to Israeli national security,” said Mil-Man. “Israel could find itself ousted from international agreements and there will be widespread ramifications.”
Netanyahu was greeted by protestors at Ben-Gurion airport ahead of his flight to Berlin and will be met by further demonstrations in the German capitol.
“These protests are important; they also project abroad that Israeli society is voicing its opinion in an unprecedented manner,” said Harari, who believes that, coupled with international criticism, the Israeli government will eventually correct its course regarding the reforms.