For the past two months, the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee has held almost daily meetings to discuss the government’s blockbuster judicial reform proposal. The reform package seeks to limit the power of the Supreme Court to review Knesset legislation; grant control to the ruling coalition over Supreme Court appointments; reduce the authority of the attorney general and the government’s legal advisers; and change the standards for Supreme Court review of executive branch decisions.
Notwithstanding intense lobbying and protests against the proposals from both within and outside Israel, the legislation is moving forward. On Feb. 20, two aspects of the package passed a first vote of the Knesset, in what is projected to be a long but steady adoption process. Those moving the legislation along are doing so with a single-minded focus on passing the reforms with the 64-vote majority of the governing coalition and ignoring the opposition.
But it is not just the parliamentary opposition that is raising concerns. Cautionary flags have been raised by jurists, academics, politicians, diplomats and hundreds of thousands of citizen protesters who have taken to the streets week after week. And perhaps the most prominent voice of concern has come from Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who urged the government to suspend the legislative process and enter negotiations with the opposition or consultations with the president of the Supreme Court and the attorney general about the reform issues in an effort to reach consensus for change rather than to impose it through brute force.
The focus of Herzog’s message is on process — using dialogue and engagement to work toward consensus. Neither Herzog nor most others who have raised concern about the government’s rush to enact judicial reform are saying that the current system is perfect. They acknowledge that there are problems. And they have advanced a variety of approaches and solutions ranging from tinkering with the number of votes needed to get things done to a comprehensive restructuring of the country’s judicial system, including new rules regarding Israeli basic laws, establishing an Israeli bill of rights, establishing intermediate appellate courts and much more. Working through those issues will take time. But Israel’s newly empowered leaders are impatient.
Having already ignored Herzog’s plea to pause, it seems clear that without significant intervention the managers of the legislation intend to power forward, even as opposition grows, massive voter protests continue and Israel moves toward a worrisome crisis that threatens confidence in the judiciary, raises concerns about democracy in the Jewish state and tears at the country’s social contract.
The person best positioned to step in to calm the growing chaos is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, he is conflicted because of his own legal complications. But he doesn’t have to address the merits of the proposals or even become involved in the negotiations. All he needs to do is bring order to the process by exerting his influence, exercising his well-developed deal-making skills and influencing the leaders on both sides to engage in meaningful discussion on the issues. Unfortunately, Netanyahu appears reluctant to play that role. That’s a shame, because this is an opportunity for him to show singular leadership.