Israel – State of the Nation

Malte Ian Lauterbach reports for Berlin Story News on ongoing protests over planned judicial reforms in Israel, terrorist attacks in Jerusalem, rocket attacks and deadly fighting in Jenin.

While in Germany the media is mainly concerned with either the major controversial issue “Tanks for Ukraine” or the other major controversial issue “Elections in Berlin”, in Israel no issue has been as dominant and polarizing in recent weeks as the judicial reforms in Israel.

While rockets are fired daily from the Gaza Strip into the Israeli city of Sderot and the surrounding area in the south of the country, innocent people are regularly killed in battles between the Israeli army and militias in Jenin and Nablus. (Report on the situation in Nablus and Jenin). The country is shaken by new terrorist attacks almost every day. The sad fact is: until now (Updated 13.2.2023), more than 13 people died in terrorist attacks in Israel. Recently, three Jews, two of them children - 6 and 8 years old, died after a terrorist attack in Jerusalem.

Despite the volatile environment, thousands of citizens are taking to the streets to express their opposition to proposed judicial reforms. So I find myself on a hotel balcony in Jerusalem on a cold Thursday evening when the street suddenly becomes filled with the sounds of distant drums. As the almost 5000 people approach, my companion is able to understand individual chants. We rush out into the ice-cold evening, I grab my camera on the way and we take the chance to find out more on site and exchange a few words with the demonstrators.

Protester in Jerusalem. The flag of Israel flies in his hand.

One demonstrator chose drastic words – “We are witnessing the death of a democracy,” she told me in a voice filled with emotion. “We saw all this before in 1933 – First they will attack the courts, using democracy itself,” she warns. “Then they will restrict freedom of expression and then the people themselves.” Her words reflect the fears of many people in the crowd who are gathering to protect their democratic rights and prevent the dismantling of their country's system of checks and balances.

Changes to Israel's justice system pushed by Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Minister Yariv Levin have sparked intense controversy. Many experts and opposition leaders warn of the extremely problematic nature of the reforms. At their core, the reforms concern the question of checks and balances in a democratic government.

Particularly because Netanyahu's government has been marked by various scandals in the past, the changes giving the government more control over the judiciary are seen by many as a way to further restrict judicial independence.

Critics argue that the proposed reforms would allow the government to appoint judges more sympathetic to its political agenda, threatening the impartiality of the judiciary. They also argue that the reforms would undermine the courts' ability to hold the government accountable for its actions, further weakening people's trust in the state's institutions.

In addition, the proposed changes would give the Knesset the power to override Supreme Court decisions simple majority to override and limit the powers of the government's legal advisers.

The reforms have sparked significant backlash and are engulfing the entire country in discourse. President Isaac Herzog addressed the nation in a special address, declaring that Israel was “in fateful days.” He declared: "We will all lose, the State of Israel will lose," and urged both sides not to take a zero-sum approach to the government's controversial judicial reform proposals. In his speech, Herzog emphasized the deep divide in society: “It is no longer just a political crisis, we are on the brink of constitutional and social collapse.” He also explained that in recent weeks he has been working tirelessly to reach a broad agreement on tried to reform, but without success. Herzog's message is a clear indication of the seriousness of the situation and the far-reaching consequences of the proposed legal changes.

In addition, the proposed reforms have faced resistance from abroad. Recently, US President Biden made a statement to the New York Times emphasizing the importance of strong institutions and an independent judiciary for both Israel and the United States. He stressed the need for the Knesset to reach mutual agreement.

Special thanks to Catarina Candeas and Wesam Jawich, without whom these and other articles would not have been possible.