Both Sides Plan for Next Battles Over Israel’s Court Overhaul

After frenzied days capped by Israeli lawmakers voting to limit judicial power and protesters clashing with police, health workers went on strike on Tuesday, the military tried to stave off resignations and all sides girded for a longer fight over the government’s court overhaul.

The far-right governing coalition’s plan to weaken the courts has set off months of unrest that threatens to widen Israel’s social fissures into yawning chasms. Monday’s vote in the Parliament enacted the first piece of that program — the stripping of the Supreme Court’s ability to block government actions and appointments as “unreasonable” — prompting an eruption of late-night street protests.

But the next showdown did not begin immediately — the streets were fairly quiet on Tuesday — and may not do so for months. The umbrella alliance coordinating various protest groups says it will continue to hold weekly demonstrations on Saturday nights, but it is unclear whether Israel will continue to have the kind of mass protests it has seen recently before some new turning point is reached.

“People are still trying to figure it out,” said Josh Drill, a spokesman for the alliance. “Because yesterday was such an intense day, the different groups are still in deliberations,” he added.

With Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset, set to recess on Wednesday until October, the government will have to wait to vote on the other parts of its plan, including giving the government more control over the appointment of judges.

Opponents want the Supreme Court to hear a challenge to the new law — a constitutional crisis in itself, as the court would be asked to strike down a law that curbs its power to strike down laws — but that could take weeks or months, if it happens at all.

Key battles still loom; the justice minister, Yariv Levin, has vowed to press on with more judicial changes by the end of the year. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may try to reinstate Aryeh Deri, a key ally whose cabinet appointment was blocked by the Supreme Court, a year after he had pleaded guilty to tax fraud and told a court he would leave Parliament — exactly the kind of Supreme Court action Monday’s vote was intended to prevent.

Demonstrators blocking a highway in Tel Aviv on Monday.Credit…Oded Balilty/Associated Press

The governing parties contend that the courts have improperly impeded their agenda and the will of the majority, but polls have consistently shown that the judicial overhaul is unpopular. Their opponents fear a series of illiberal interventions that they say will lead to a less secular and pluralist society, with a slim governing majority able to infringe on an array of rights.

There were signs on Tuesday that Mr. Netanyahu, just two days after undergoing surgery to have a pacemaker implanted, was not in a hurry for the next momentous clash.

A government minister called for the government, using its newly claimed free rein, to dismiss the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, a rare voice of dissent at cabinet meetings, who is overseeing the prosecution of Mr. Netanyahu on corruption charges. Opponents have long warned that the government — the most right-wing, ultranationalist and religiously conservative in Israel’s history — would remove her to get the case quashed, but a spokesman for the prime minister quickly denied that she was its next target.

Following an outcry, Mr. Netanyahu’s party also blocked an attempt by an ultra-Orthodox party in its coalition to advance a bill that would describe the study of the Torah, the Jewish Bible, as a “significant service to the state of Israel,” a move that would infuriate many secular Israelis.

The Israeli military is assessing how many reservists, of the more than 11,000 who threatened to resign if the law was passed, will actually follow through with their threat, and what that means for Israel’s military capacity. Leaders of the military have warned that some of its functions would be seriously impaired if reservists quit en masse.

Though President Biden has counseled Mr. Netanyahu to build a consensus rather than take such divisive action, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday that the vote to approve the new law would not prompt a cut in American aid to Israel, about $3.8 billion annually, largely for military purposes.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.Credit…Pool photo by Gil Cohen-Magen

The conflict has already shaken Israel’s economy, with the main stock market index, the Tel Aviv 35, dropping 5.2 percent on Monday and Tuesday.The country’s biggest labor union has not withdrawn its threat of a general strike to protest the judicial overhaul.

Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, warned on Tuesday that the new government’s plans “could materially weaken the judiciary’s independence and disrupt effective checks and balances,” and that “executive and legislative institutions have become less predictable and more willing to create significant risks to economic and social stability.”

That followed the release of a survey of the vaunted Israeli high-tech industry that suggested that hundreds of tech companies were considering whether to move their businesses overseas, or had already begun steps to do so.

But even that potential exodus is too early to call, some tech leaders said.

Exiting the Israeli economy might bring short-term stability, as well as undermine Mr. Netanyahu’s government, said Nadav Zafrir, a co-founder of a major Israeli tech fund. But it would also cut companies off from a key source of their success — Israel’s large pool of tech workers — and it would mean abandoning the struggle to build a better Israel, he said.

“You can cut off your nose because the nose doesn’t like the rest of the body, but it doesn’t make sense,” Mr. Zafrir said. “Long term, we will lose our differentiating factor.”

The Knesset’s coming break creates a challenge for the opposition: With few lawmakers inside the building during recess, the rallies and encampments that have sprung up outside will have no one to directly challenge. And even after lawmakers return, further judicial changes might wait until November, Mr. Netanyahu said Monday.

Across the country, people spoke of feeling somber and uncertain, the government’s supporters and critics alike. An alliance of high-tech leaders opposed to the government paid to cover the front pages of four major newspapers with a block of black and one sentence of text: “A black day for Israeli democracy.”

Sandra Cohen, a former social worker leafing through the papers at a bookshop, said they matched her mood. She said she wasn’t sure what to make of the judicial overhaul law, but she also felt alienated by the disruption and roadblocks created overnight by the protesters.

“It feels like anarchy — like they’re totally trashing their own country,” Ms. Cohen said. “You want to go into the center of town but you don’t know if you can get back — if the buses are running or not. They’re talking about democracy — but they’re infringing on my democracy.”

Like tech executives, military reservists who threatened to resign must weigh the potential to harm Israel’s security if they follow through, or to shore up Mr. Netanyahu’s government if they don’t.

The military says that the vast majority of those who participated in the joint declarations last week have yet to either send in their resignations or formally turn down direct call-ups. Since most reservists only get called up a few times a year, it may be weeks or months before significant numbers are forced to decide.

“It’s still too early to say,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, an Israeli military spokesman. “People still seem to be sleeping on the decision.”

Protesters outside the Knesset in Jerusalem on Monday.Credit…Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press

In the meantime, the military is trying to persuade the relatively few who have already withdrawn to change their minds. “We’re saying to them: ‘We need you, only together can we defend this house,’” Colonel Hecht said.

The military is particularly keen to dissuade roughly 500 pilots who threatened to withdraw last Friday. If the pilots leave, it could swiftly and significantly damage Air Force capacity: Reserve pilots often lead combat missions across the Middle East, since they typically have more experience than most of the active duty flying corps.

On Tuesday, it wasn’t yet clear how many of them would actually step back, said Relik Shafir, a former general, fighter pilot, and member of an influential group of retired pilots opposed to the judicial overhaul.

Some pilots may wait to see whether the Supreme Court overrules the new law, he said. And, he added: “Some of them may chicken out. People are people.”

Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck contributed reporting from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.

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