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Israeli anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv. PA Images
judicial reforms

Explainer: How Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government sparked unprecedented protests in Israel

There have been about 12 weeks of mass demonstrations.

ISRAEL IS CURRENTLY being rocked by some of the most widespread protests of recent years. 

The county’s main airport was forced to halt departures earlier today following a general strike called by the country’s largest union.

This itself has followed about 12 weeks of mass demonstrations against controversial legal reforms spearheaded by the country’s far-right administration. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a coalition that is made up of his own Likud party and various far-right partners that have pushed for the legal reforms, which would weaken the country’s Supreme Court. 

Netanyahu, who has held office from 2009 until 2021 and as well as a stint in the 1990s, now faces a major political crisis as pressure from inside and outside seeks to force him into a major u-turn.

So what is going on? 

Tell me a bit about the background to the current government

Last December, Netanyahu announced that he had formed a new Israeli government, returning to power as the head of the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.

It followed an election on 1 November in which Netanyahu secured a mandate to form a government backed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and an extreme-right bloc.

The election was Israel’s fifth such vote in three years, with the country’s political deadlock caused in part by corruption charges faced by Netanyahu and questions over his fitness for office. 

Whereas some parties refused to sit alongside Netanyahu, the extreme right coalesced in a coalition with his party and he was to head the government once more. 

What did this government want to do 

rishi-sunak-welcomes-benjamin-netanyahu-to-10-downing-street Benjamin Netanyahu in London last week. Tayfun Salci / PA Images Tayfun Salci / PA Images / PA Images

The government made a whole host of controversial pledges including an expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank.

The government pledged to recognise illegal outposts established in the West Bank, with Bezalel Smotrich, head of the extreme-right Religious Zionism formation, given sweeping powers to oversee settlement in the region. 

Smotrich has faced international condemnation earlier this month when he called for a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank to be “wiped out”

The government’s proposed  ‘Law of Return’ would tighten the criteria for obtaining Israeli nationality and the government proposed a new law that would permit businesses to refuse to provide services on religious grounds.

A rollback of pro-LGBTQ+ legislation was also proposed with Avi Maoz, leader of the anti-LGBTQ+ Noam party, set to lead a “national Jewish identity” directorate at the Department of Education. 

Laws protecting women’s rights were also to be axed, with legislation published authorise the segregation of men and women in public spaces.

So where does the Supreme Court come into it?

Israel does not have a written constitution or an Upper House (such as the Seanad in Ireland) so the Supreme Court has traditionally had a powerful role in acting as a balance to the power of the Knesset (similar to the Dáil in Ireland). 

In the past, the Supreme Court has made decisions that have angered Israel’s right, such as in 2012 when it over-ruled an exemption that ultra-Orthodox Jews had to the country’s mandatory military service. 

Another key decision made by the Supreme Court was in 2020, when it struck down a Knesset law that would have given a legal basis to illegal settlements in the West Bank

Both decisions clearly put the Supreme Court at odds with the ultra-conservative and ultra-nationalist elements within Israel’s new government and Netanyahu and his partners are therefore seeking to clip the wings of the court. 

The Prime Minister and his allies say the effort is aimed at reining in an activist court. 

The controversial bill would essentially allow MPs to pass laws by a simple majority that the Supreme Court cannot overturn.

In another bill that could potentially benefit Netanyahu himself, the Knesset gave initial approval for a legislation protecting the prime minister from being declared unfit for office.

So these moves have not gone down well? 

That’s an understatement. Critics say the legislation would concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority, circumventing the system of checks and balances within the country. 

Protests have been a near constant since the beginning of the year and legal experts and retired military leaders are among those who have joined the opposition. 

Yesterday, Netanyahu sacked his defence minister Yoav Galant who said the proposals should be dropped and some of the as the country’s top allies, including the United States, have also expressed concern.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2023 and Press Association

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