Long stories short
- Muslim countries condemned a far-right group for burning a Quran outside the Iraqi embassy in Copenhagen.
- World Weather Attribution said climate change have played an “overwhelming” role in this month’s heatwaves.
- Organisers said Parisians will be able to swim in the Seine for the first time in 100 years after next year’s Olympics.
Basic Israeli instincts
The world’s only Jewish state has no written constitution. It relies instead on “Basic Laws” fine-tuned over 65 years, enforced and interpreted by the Supreme Court.
So what? A vote yesterday by Israel’s parliament to amend those laws and limit the power of the court has plunged the country into a constitutional and identity crisis that pits military reservists against orthodox Jews and has filled the streets of Tel Aviv with angry crowds and burning tyres.
Protesters occupied the centres of both of Israel’s main cities last night. Police tried in vain to disperse them with water cannons. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm in an address to the nation, but did not back down.
His new law is narrowly drafted but its reception has been tumultuous. At stake are
- Israel’s security, especially if reservists refuse to serve as they have threatened;
- its alliances, with the US but also with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States; and
- its 75 year-old status as a liberal democracy.
Getting the law passed mattered enough to Netanyahu for him to be discharged from hospital less than 24 hours after emergency heart surgery to vote in the Knesset.
Preventing it being passed mattered enough to Israel’s progressives and professionals for 20,000 of them to walk in baking heat from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at the weekend.
In legal language all Monday’s vote did was to end the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down laws and veto government appointments as “unreasonable” – a standard introduced into Israeli jurisprudence in the 1980s, frequently used since in lieu of a more formal system of checks and balances, and now attacked by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners as anti-democratic and no more than a linguistic construct.
In practice the vote has triggered a showdown between left and right, secular and religious, two-state dove and security hawk, over the very nature of the Israeli state.
A brief constitutional history
1948 – Israel is established without a constitution because its founders, mainly secular Jews of Eastern European extraction, can’t agree on fundamentals like the role of religion and democracy in a Jewish state.
1950s – the Knesset starts introducing Basic Laws as blueprints for a future constitution.
1980 – Aharon Barak, a new Supreme Court judge admired by Jimmy Carter among others, introduces reasonableness as a ground for nullifying government decisions.
1989 – the court used the reasonableness doctrine to overrule objections from Arye Deri, an ultra-orthodox politician, and give Jerusalem a new football stadium.
1992 – the court establishes the supremacy of Israel’s Basic Laws, including one guaranteeing human dignity, liberty and “freedom of work”.
2018 – the court upholds a nation-state law reserving the right of self-determination in Israel to Jewish people alone and consigning Palestinian and Arab citizens to a second legal tier.
Unreasonable power? The 2018 ruling is seen as a reflection of a rightward shift in the Israeli electorate, but the court’s use of the reasonableness doctrine has more often been to progressive ends. It has been used to force the army to prosecute a colonel whose soldiers beat up Palestinian detainees; to direct the attorney general to press charges against bankers in a share price manipulation case; and to ban Arye Deri from government after an indictment for corruption.
The new law could be used to
- clear the way for Deri to head three ministries in Netanyahu’s government despite having spent time in prison;
- prevent the court objecting to settlement-building on Palestinian land and ultimately the annexation of the West Bank;
- help the government remove Israel’s current attorney general, Gali Baharav, who has been overseeing the prosecution of Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust.
Up next. Netanyahu’s justice minister, Yariv Levin, wants to give the Knesset more power to choose judges. A separate law that would ban all public signs of support for the Palestinian cause received its first reading yesterday.
Restraining force. Biden has been cautious in his criticism of the new law and has little personal sway over Team Netanyahu anyway. A legacy of Trump’s presidency could prove more effective. The Abraham Accords signed on his watch with Riyadh and the UAE are now at risk, and Israel doesn’t want to lose them.
Also, in the nibs
Photograph Amir Levy/Getty Images
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