Authoritarianism can be defined in many ways. A judiciary subservient to the ruling regime is one of them.

Israelis protest plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 11. A core element of Netanyahu’s high court overhaul is a law passed late last month that prevents the Supreme Court from overturning government initiatives on the grounds that those measures lack “reasonableness.” Ohad Zwigenberg/Associated Press, File

No one would expect a court in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran or North Korea to mete out true, unbiased justice. In those countries, rule of law is an empty promise. Israel isn’t in the same category, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push to weaken his nation’s Supreme Court represents the most ominous threat to Israel’s democracy in its 75-year history.

Can Israel save itself from its anti-democratic backslide? Yes, it can, provided that a majority of Israelis join forces with civil society and the high court itself to turn back Netanyahu’s reckless, politically expedient gambit.

It won’t be easy, but legions of Israelis have already shown they can send a strong message warning Netanyahu how far he has dangerously strayed from Israel’s founding ideals. For months, throngs of demonstrators have taken to the streets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to protest their prime minister’s actions. Many reservists in Israel’s military forces expressed their opposition to the judicial overhaul by resigning or threatening to resign. A growing number of Israelis, including high-tech workers, scientists and doctors, have said they are looking into leaving the country.

Netanyahu put himself in this position by aligning himself with Israel’s far-right Zionist leaders obsessed with settlement expansion in the West Bank and bent on moving the nation away from a pluralistic society at all costs. Netanyahu may be the face of the judicial overhaul, but his far-right allies are the engine behind it.

Netanyahu’s stated rationale for the overhaul is that Israel’s high court has far too much power over the Knesset, the country’s sole legislative chamber. However, a weakened Supreme Court suits Netanyahu perfectly; it gives him a better chance at eluding a potential prison term on pending charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. A majority of Israelis believe Netanyahu’s bid to avoid justice is the real driver behind the judicial overhaul; a recent poll by an Israeli television channel found that nearly 60% of Israelis think that the prime minister is motivated by his personal agenda.


A core element of Netanyahu’s high court overhaul is a law passed late last month that prevents the Supreme Court from overturning government initiatives on the grounds that those measures lack “reasonableness.” That standard is a crucial tenet of judicial oversight, since Israel lacks a formal constitution to serve as a check against legislative overreach. Without it, Netanyahu’s far-right coalition can carry out its hard-line agenda as it pleases. Netanyahu wins, but it’s a monumental loss for a nation that for so long has made democracy an integral part of its identity.

The Biden administration has tried to carefully navigate the Israeli crisis – warning Netanyahu about the pitfalls of forging ahead with the overhaul, while at the same time avoiding the potential for a rift in its relationship with its biggest ally in the Middle East. Though it makes sense for President Biden to keep up the pressure on Netanyahu, ultimately it’s Israel that will have to pull itself away from the precipice. Ironically, the crisis is now squarely in the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court, which must decide whether the law the Knesset passed limiting its power should stand or be overturned.

Both options come with risk for the court and the country. Acquiescence essentially green-lights Netanyahu’s government to do as it wishes, which likely would lead to Israel becoming a Potemkin democracy. Arab minority rights would erode even faster than they have before, and settlements in the West Bank would proliferate in alarmingly greater numbers. Rejecting the law could set up a showdown between the high court and Netanyahu that puts the nation’s military, police and lower courts in the middle, not knowing which side to obey.

In the end, the court really has no option but to strike down Netanyahu’s new law. It’s less about the court’s self-preservation and more about taking a firm stand in defense of Israeli democracy, which surely will wither if the ideal of checks and balances isn’t safeguarded.

It’s also vital that the high court doesn’t take this stand alone. Citizens and Israel’s civil society must stand alongside the Supreme Court in this moment of crisis. The best way to get Netanyahu and his far-right allies to abandon their assault on Israel’s democracy is to put up a united front.

Like Americans, Israelis hold dear their country’s adherence to democracy. They must continue defending it.

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