The Israeli government achieved its first victory in a months-long bid to overhaul the country’s judicial system. On Monday, Israeli lawmakers approved a law that strips the country’s Supreme Court of its power to overrule government decisions that it deems to be “unreasonable,” or not in keeping with the public interest. Opponents of the legislation, thousands of whom took to the streets across the country for their 29th consecutive week of protest, decried the law’s passage as a death knell for Israeli democracy, given that it subverts one of the sole checks on the government’s authority (Israel, unlike most other democracies, does not have a written constitution). Opposition lawmakers are expected to appeal to the Supreme Court, though it is not clear whether the court will take up the case.
While much of the uproar over the judicial overhaul has focused on the impact it stands to have on Israel’s democratic norms and its wider international standing, relatively less attention has been paid to what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners ultimately intend to do with their consolidated power. Some commentators have suggested that circumventing corruption charges could be at least one motive for the Prime Minister. (Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust, and accepting bribes; he denies any wrongdoing.) But experts tell TIME that furthering the ultranationalist right’s ambitions of unfettered settlement expansion—and, potentially, unilateral annexation of the West Bank—could be another.
“The whole notion of weakening the Supreme Court has a huge element of moving forward with Israeli annexation and with providing impunity to soldiers and settlers,” says Mairav Zonszein, an Israel-based senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Israeli ministers have made no secret of their territorial ambitions. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the country’s national security minister who himself resides in an Israeli settlement near Hebron, responded to recent settler attacks on Palestinian villages by encouraging more Israeli settlers to “run for the hilltops, settle them.” Bezalel Smotrich, the country’s finance minister, previously wrote that settlement expansion is key to “imposing sovereignty on all Judea and Samaria,” the biblical term for the West Bank often used by religious nationalists. “In this way,” he added, “we will be able to create a clear and irreversible reality on the ground.” Yariv Levin, Israel’s justice minister who also serves as Netanyahu’s deputy, has repeatedly framed the judicial overhaul as a prerequisite for annexation. But perhaps the clearest statement of intent came from Netanyahu, who in December declared that the Jewish people have “an exclusive and indisputable right to all areas of the Land of Israel,” including the West Bank. This sentiment was echoed in the government’s coalition agreement, which said “the Prime Minister will lead the formulation and implementation of policy within the framework of which sovereignty will be applied to Judea and Samaria.” As the Times of Israel reports, this is thought to be the first time that a coalition agreement has included a clause sanctioning the annexation of the West Bank.
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“In their mind, the Israeli Supreme Court has been one of the biggest hurdles in the path toward realizing that dream,” Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, the director of research for Israel-Palestine at Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), says of the far-right coalition, which includes Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud as well as ultra-nationalist and anti-Arab parties. “They’ve been talking about this for many, many years quite openly.”
As opposition lawmaker Aida Touma-Sliman of the left-wing Democratic Front for Peace and Equality Party, or Hadash, sees it, the primary focus of these reforms is “the annexation and controlling of the West Bank and the Palestinian territories,” she tells TIME. “They need the Supreme Court to be neutralized and to not criticize or to judge the policies and decisions they are going to make.”
The implications of the judicial overhaul for the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank today has scarcely featured in the mass protests against the government. Alon-Lee Green, the national co-director of the Arab-Jewish grassroots movement Standing Together and one of the organizers of the first protest against the judicial overhaul, previously told TIME that the debate over whether to include the subject of occupation within the protest movement was the source of “a lot of tension” among its participants, with those from the political center preferring not to mention it. As far as many of the protesters are concerned, the judicial overhaul “is a separate issue” from the occupation, says Zonszein. “They’ve been compartmentalizing it the whole time.”
To date, the Supreme Court has both enabled and hindered Israel’s settlements. On one hand, many of the court’s decisions have facilitated land grabs and Palestinian displacement in the West Bank. On the other, the high court has imposed limits on some of the settler right’s worst excesses—not least by striking down a law enabling settlement construction on Palestinian property. The Israeli Supreme Court is the only institution that Palestinians can go to to challenge individual settlements or defend their rights in land disputes. Limiting its oversight or allowing the governing coalition to handpick which justices sit on it, as is one of the other proposed pieces of the judicial overhaul legislation, “will absolutely affect Palestinians in the sense that their avenues for recourse are being reduced dramatically,” says Schaeffer Omer-Man.
Much in the way that internal critics of the judicial overhaul have overlooked its impact on Palestinians, so too have its external critics—including the U.S. In a statement issued Monday, the White House called the passage of the judicial overhaul bill “unfortunate,” with no mention of its implication for Palestinians or the viability of a two-state solution, the international community’s preferred, if seemingly improbable, solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For Palestinians, many of whom will have watched yesterday’s events from the sidelines, the judicial overhaul only stands to accelerate what has already been a worsening situation. The last couple of years have seen a major uptick in violence in the occupied territories, marked by deadly military raids and settler rampages. 2022 was the deadliest year for Palestinians in nearly two decades, and this year appears on course to beat that record. “The trends that we’re seeing have become much worse,” says Zonszein. “The reality on the ground for Palestinians was bad before [the judicial overhaul], and it’s bad now.”
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Write to Yasmeen Serhan at email@example.com