TEL AVIV – In Israel's divisive debate over the government's planned legal overhaul, proponents claim that curtailing the power of judges and courts is good for the country.
But, as their opponents often counter, other factors may be in play: Some of the leading politicians clamoring for these changes either face legal problems or believe the courts are obstructing their ideological agendas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's allies say the overhaul will rein in an unelected judiciary. Critics warn that it will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances, give too much power to the premier and push the country toward authoritarianism.
Here is a look at the key players who are pushing ahead with the overhaul, despite mass protests and opposition from business leaders, security chiefs and legal officials, as well as concern from Israel’s international allies.
NETANYAHU ON TRIAL
Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving media moguls and wealthy associates.
While he was once seen as a defender of the courts, since being indicted, he has blasted the system for carrying out what he says is a witch hunt against him.
His detractors say Netanyahu is seeking an escape route from his trial. One part of the overhaul would give the government control over the appointment of judges. If that passes, Netanyahu, through his government, could install sympathetic judges who could decide his fate. Netanyahu denies the overhaul is linked to his trial.
Israel’s attorney general has barred Netanyahu from dealing with the overhaul, citing potential conflict of interest. But that isn’t expected to slow progress on it.
Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, is barreling forward. Levin has even said the charges against Netanyahu helped spark the need for the overhaul.
A Netanyahu ally in his coalition government is also burdened by criminal charges. Aryeh Deri was convicted and put on probation last year in a plea bargain for tax offenses. He also sat in prison for 22 months in the early 2000s for bribery, fraud and breach of trust for crimes committed while he was interior minister in the 1990s.
Deri was at the fulcrum of the country’s battle over the power of the courts earlier this year when Netanyahu was forced to fire him after the Supreme Court determined that it wasn’t reasonable for the repeat offender to serve as a Cabinet minister.
After the setback, the coalition doubled down on legislating Deri back into the government. In the meantime, he remains a force in parliament.
“Deri is driven by his own interests and vendetta,” said Yohanan Plesner of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “There is no way he can serve in the government unless the court’s authorities are dramatically cut down or reduced.”
A Deri spokesman denied the allegation, saying the politician believes the overhaul is necessary to restore a balance between the executive and judicial branches.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jews, who have a strong voice in the current government, have long felt that the courts threaten their way of life.
Their chief political objective is to continue exemptions for religious men from military conscription. Under a decades-old system, ultra-Orthodox men have been allowed to skip the country’s compulsory military service to instead study Jewish religious texts. That has prompted resentment from secular Israelis who have challenged the system at the Supreme Court, which has demanded the government set up a more equitable framework.
Successive governments have tried to meet the standards of the top court, which has struck down laws seen as favoring the ultra-Orthodox and has emerged as a threat to the community.
The ultra-Orthodox consider religious study — and avoiding military service — key to protecting their insular communities. Experts see military service as a way to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the workforce. Many men in the community, which makes up 13% of the country’s population, do not work, putting a burden on the economy.
Secular Israelis and groups that promote Jewish pluralism have voiced concern that once judicial oversight is scaled back, the ultra-Orthodox will use their political clout to make the country’s character more religious. They point to attempts by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers to limit business and public works on the Jewish Sabbath as examples of what could lie ahead.
SLIGHTED BY THE DISENGAGEMENT
Pro-settler parties are an essential part of Netanyahu’s government. Simcha Rothman, a West Bank settler, is spearheading the overhaul as head of a parliamentary committee.
The courts have both sided with settlers and opposed them in past rulings, including about unauthorized outposts built on private Palestinian land. Many settlers nonetheless see the justice system as hostile to their desire to expand settlements and ultimately annex the West Bank.
Much of the settlers' anger toward the court goes back to Israel's withdrawal of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when the justices sided with the government. At the time, settlers and their supporters demonstrated in large numbers against the withdrawal, which they felt was unfairly imposed on them. The withdrawal frequently comes up in the current heated debate, with settler leaders claiming that large segments of Israeli society that support the current protests did not back them during what they say was a deeply troubling time.
“Where were you during the disengagement,” firebrand settler leader and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich reportedly asked bank chiefs earlier this year when they warned about the overhaul's adverse effects on the economy.
Commentator Raviv Drucker said this signals the settlers’ real motivations. “The text was clear: The media and the judiciary rode roughshod over opponents of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from the Gaza Strip," he wrote in the Haaretz daily. "And here’s the subtext: Now, we’re taking revenge on you.”
Smotrich’s hard-line views came up against the Israeli establishment during the disengagement. He was arrested in the lead-up to the event for reported involvement in a plot to damage infrastructure and block main highways.
Smotrich's governing partner, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has a long list of grievances. He believes the courts have been unfair to religious Jews and settlers and sided too often with Palestinians.
For years, Ben-Gvir, a far-right settler leader, was limited to the fringes of Israeli politics. He has been arrested dozens of times and was convicted of incitement and supporting a Jewish terror group.
In Netanyahu's new government, he is the national security minister and now oversees the country's police force.
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.