Two Israels face off as justice overhaul deepens the divide

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By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The day before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right, religious government was sworn in on Dec. 29, a popular chat show host asked whether Israel might be better off dividing into a liberal secular state and a more nationalist theocracy.

The host's whimsical nod to Biblical times when Israelites split into the rival kingdoms of Judea and Israel with dire results encapsulated a sense of alarm about how deep divisions were becoming under Netanyahu's emerging coalition.

And that was a week before it unveiled the sweeping judicial reforms that have triggered nationwide protests and soul-searching about whether two camps with very different views of what it means to be a Jewish democratic state can coexist.

Reuters spoke with coalition and opposition lawmakers, legal experts, economists, former and serving security officials as well as ordinary Israelis on both sides of the divide who voiced concern that Netanyahu's rapid judicial reform drive was pushing the country to the brink.

The changes going through parliament would rein in the power of the independent Supreme Court and give the government decisive sway over picking judges for a bench some conservative politicians have accused of harming national interests.

For a ruling coalition that relies on settlers pushing to tighten Israel's grip on the occupied West Bank and ultra-Orthodox religious parties, the court is an enemy of democracy because it has too often overruled parliament.

The camp opposing the judicial changes is a cross-section of Israeli society, with former army chiefs, scientists, business leaders and economists among the most vocal critics.

For them, weakening the Supreme Court would undermine the bedrock of Israel's democracy and could set the country on the path to becoming a corrupt and religiously coercive state.

And the feelings run deep.


"I despise them," Elad Ziv, 52, said of the Supreme Court judges who in 2016 ordered the demolition of the Amona settler outpost in the West Bank, where he and his wife had lived for more than a decade and raised seven children.

He said the court had been usurping power from lawmakers since the 1990s, intervening in debates it had no mandate to rule on.

In 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a law that had retroactively legalised homes built by settlers on land owned by Palestinians, like Amona. Such rulings could become near impossible if the judicial overhaul goes through because the court's power to overturn laws would be limited by parliament.

Israel has no written constitution and only one house of parliament, which is typically controlled by majority coalitions, so weakening the court could remove one of the only brakes on government's ruling with unbridled power, experts say.

Netanyahu's office declined to comment for this story.

For Moriya Taassan Michaeli, her deep-rooted opposition to the court dates back to 2005, when it allowed the forced eviction of thousands of settlers from Gaza as Israel pulled out of the Palestinian enclave.

Almost 20 years later, it is still an open wound.

"The court has been hostile to the settlers for years," she said in her West Bank settlement, Givat Harel. "The legal reform comes from a just place, from a population discriminated against for years by a court conducting itself as a left-wing bastion."

Settlers driven by ideology see themselves as pioneers redeeming land that was promised by God and many feel betrayed by Supreme Court rulings against settlements.

The Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment.

In rare remarks about government policy, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said in January that the changes would crush the justice system, deal a fatal blow to democracy and harm the defence of human rights and civil liberties.

She said rulings against the government and legislature over the years had always been done responsibly and with restraint.

Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis are against the way the government is ploughing ahead with the reforms. Many conservatives and liberals say they want a compromise solution, such as the one being pushed by President Isaac Herzog.

The surveys show a quarter to a third of Israelis stand firmly behind the reform drive.

West Bank settlers account for about 5% of Israelis. They include some parts of the fast-growing Ultra-Orthodox community, which nurses its own grievances against the court and makes up about 13% of the population.

Other supporters of the reforms come from Netanyahu's Likud party, the biggest in parliament.

But for many protesters, the judicial plans have become the front line in a battle for Israel's identity.


"1973 - Yom Kippur War. 1982 - Lebanon War. 2023 - War to save Democracy."

So read a placard carried by an army veteran marching with other reservists on a cold February morning along a hilltop that straddles the highway from the freewheeling business hub Tel Aviv to the poorer and more religious Jerusalem.

"This country is changing from being democratic, liberal to a very religious country," said former commando Itzhak Aviram. "As we fought once for Israel, we are still fighting for democratic Israel."

A few days after the reservists protested, former heads of Israel's National Security Council, including hawkish Netanyahu appointments, urged political leaders to compromise in a letter to the parliament speaker.

They wrote in the undated letter, which has been seen by Reuters and was circulated around Feb. 10, that the depth of the divisions could weaken Israel's ability to withstand external threats.

"We identify the intensity of the present social and political conflict as a danger to national resilience," read the letter signed by 12 people including former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who is widely seen as a Netanyahu confidant.

There is alarm in the business community too.

Worried central bankers have urged politicians to slow down, some technology firms have said they're moving their money out the country and leading economists foresee disaster as the currency slumped to its weakest in years.

Israel's mainly Muslim Arab minority, which makes up about a fifth of the population, may find the reforms troubling too.

Israel's Arab citizens, who often lament being treated as second-class citizens, are well aware of the dangers posed by the proposed changes, said lawmaker Mansour Abbas, head of the United Arab List faction.

Fellow opposition lawmaker Moshe Torpaz, an observant Jew and member of the centrist There is a Future party, urged parliament's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Feb. 5 to put the brakes on the contentious legislation.

"You are tearing us apart with what you're doing here into two peoples: Judea and Israel."


For some in the ultra-Orthodox community, a more divided society might not be a bad thing.

"We are a people of tribes - each should stay in his own," said Yitzhak Pindrus, a lawmaker from the ultra-Orthodox UTJ party. "The Supreme Court has challenged parliament time and again, playing politics, not nicely."

Some ultra-Orthodox politicians, loyal allies of Netanyahu who is on trial for corruption charges he denies, are aggrieved with the court for striking down cabinet appointments because of past criminal convictions.

Others want a law providing blanket exemption to religious seminary students from military conscription.

Past attempts to give religious students the right to skip army service to pursue full-time studies have been thrown out by the Supreme Court for breaching equality.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders say their men must dedicate their time to the study of scripture to ensure the continued survival of the Jewish people.

That's not an argument popular with army veterans setting off to protest from a park named after Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister assassinated in 1995 by a nationalist-religious student trying to stop a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians.

"We won't let this legal putsch happen," said Ilan Margalit, a 69-year-old former fighter pilot.

(Additional reporting by Emily Rose and Dan Williams; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by James Mackenzie and David Clarke)