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What’s Next for Israel’s Judicial Overhaul?

Israeli lawmakers on Monday approved the contentious plan of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to restrict the influence of the Supreme Court, defying a wide array of opposition movements that have threatened to shut down large parts of the country with protests.

The plan limits the ways in which the Supreme Court can overturn government decisions, part of a deeply divisive judicial overhaul that has led to perhaps Israel’s gravest domestic crisis since its founding 75 years ago.

The stakes could hardly be higher for Mr. Netanyahu, and for Israel, where mass protests have repeatedly erupted over the plan since January. The decision to press ahead with the overhaul could disrupt Israel’s economy, further strain the country’s relations with the Biden administration, and lead thousands of military reservists, a core part of Israel’s armed forces, to refuse to volunteer for duty.

Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, has warned that the schism could lead to civil war. Mr. Netanyahu is caught between stabilizing his coalition, which includes far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties that have their own reasons for wanting to restrict the powers of the Supreme Court, and appeasing the fury of more liberal Israelis who oppose giving the government more control over the judiciary.

The dispute is part of a wider ideological and cultural standoff between Mr. Netanyahu’s government and its supporters, who want to make Israel into a more religious and nationalist state, and their opponents, who hold a more secular and pluralist vision of the country.

The governing coalition says the court has too much leeway to intervene in political decisions and that it undermines Israeli democracy by giving unelected judges too much power over elected lawmakers.

The coalition says the court has too often acted against right-wing interests — for instance by preventing some construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank or striking down certain privileges granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews, like exemption from military service.

Opponents fear that the measure will make the court much less able to prevent government overreach. They say that the government, unbound by independent courts, may find it easier to end the prosecution of Mr. Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges.

In particular, some warn that the government would have more freedom to replace the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, who oversees Mr. Netanyahu’s prosecution in an ongoing corruption case. Mr. Netanyahu has denied any plan to disrupt his trial.

Critics also fear that the changes might allow the government — the most right-wing and religiously conservative in Israeli history — to restrict civil liberties or undermine secular aspects of Israeli society.

To limit the court’s influence, the government seeks to stop its judges from using the concept of “reasonableness” to countermand decisions by lawmakers and ministers.

Reasonableness is a legal standard used by many judicial systems, including Australia, Britain and Canada. A decision is deemed unreasonable if a court rules that it was made without considering all relevant factors or without giving relevant weight to each factor, or by giving irrelevant factors too much weight.

The government and its backers say that reasonableness is too vague a concept, and one never codified in Israeli law. The court angered the government this year when some of its judges used the tool to bar Aryeh Deri, a veteran ultra-Orthodox politician, from serving in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet. They said it was unreasonable to appoint Mr. Deri because he had recently been convicted of tax fraud.

Outnumbered in Parliament, Israel’s opposition parties were powerless to vote down the judicial legislation on their own. So they boycotted the vote, and the measure passed 64-0.

But powerful nonparliamentary groups — like military reservists, technology leaders, academicians, senior doctors and trade union leaders — are using their social leverage to put pressure on the government. All of these players joined forces and compelled Mr. Netanyahu to suspend the overhaul a few months ago.

Reservists from prestigious units of the army are again threatening to stop volunteering if the overhaul moves ahead. Labor leaders have also said that they could call a general strike.

Months of protests have escalated in recent days. On Monday, hundreds of protesters blocked roads to the Parliament building, some of them chaining themselves to each other.

Israel’s Parliament, called the Knesset, adjourns for summer recess at the end of July and does not reconvene until the fall. But lawmakers from Mr. Netanyahu’s governing coalition, responsible for Monday’s vote, are unlikely to revisit the plan in the days before the break.

The coalition has already pursued other parts of its agenda in relation to the courts. In an earlier vote — an initial and nonbinding one — the lawmakers passed another piece of legislation to change the makeup of the committee that selects judges, and to give representatives of the government an automatic majority on it.

That bill was prepared for final voting, and could technically be passed at any time. But it has been suspended for the moment, and the government is unlikely to try to pass it before the summer recess.

Israel’s Supreme Court may also wind up reviewing the overhaul plan itself, if parties petition it to do so and the judges decide to take the case. In that scenario, the judicial review process would take weeks if not months.

The Supreme Court could also issue a stay on the law, pausing it from taking effect as it considers whether to review it.

But Monday’s legislation is an amendment to a Basic Law — one of the body of laws that have quasi-constitutional status in Israel — and Israeli analysts say that the Supreme Court has so far never intervened in, or struck down, a Basic Law. The high court has discussed such laws in the past but never ruled on them.

Gabby Sobelman and Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting.

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