Israel’s Government: A Coalition of Controversy

The current Israeli government, already criticized for its corruption and right-wing extremism, has proposed a series of judicial reforms which sparked widespread protests.


Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

A protester on March 23, 2023 with a sign entitled “Separation of Powers.” It depicts Netanyahu as a judge, police officer, and king, with power over each branch of the Israeli government.

Despite holding five elections in less than four years, Israel is still nowhere close to political stability. The country’s latest crisis is due to a new series of judicial reforms proposed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. These reforms would limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s power of judicial review and effectively allow the current government to pick the nation’s judges. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting these reforms, which they see as a threat to their country’s democracy.

The Israeli legislature, known as the Knesset, operates on a parliamentary system; citizens vote for political parties, not individual politicians, and those parties ally themselves to create a majority governing coalition. Parties not in the majority are referred to as the opposition, and the leader of the largest opposition party is referred to as the Leader of the Opposition. The current governing coalition, led by Netanyahu’s Likud party, controls 64 seats out of the 120 available and is the most right-wing in Israeli history. Likud’s coalition includes several parties known for their religious and nationalist extremism. Most notable among these parties is Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength). Otzma is widely considered as the successor of the Kach party, which was banned from politics in 1994 due to its support of anti-Palestinian terrorism. Even before the current coalition proposed the judicial reforms, it was criticized by broad swathes of secular and left-wing members of Israeli society for the extreme views of its constituent parties.

On January 4th, 2023, Yariv Levin, the Israeli Minister of Justice and a member of the Likud party, announced his intention to change the judicial system. The reforms would change the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee. Currently, the committee has nine members: three Supreme Court judges, two representatives of the Israeli Bar Association, two members of the Knesset, and two Cabinet Ministers. Levin’s proposal would change the committee to eleven members: two Supreme Court judges, two public representatives, and seven members of the Knesset. Since the current ruling coalition would select those seven members from its own ranks, it would always have a majority in the committee and would be able to appoint judges without needing the consent of opposing viewpoints. 

Another provision in the reforms would drastically limit the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review. Currently, judicial review works similarly to how it does in America: the Supreme Court can declare that a law violates Israel’s Basic Laws, which are Israel’s equivalent of a Constitution. (Israel is one of six countries that doesn’t have an official Constitution.) The reforms would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to override a ruling made by the Supreme Court and push through with unconstitutional laws.

Proponents of these reforms assert that the current system gives too much power to Supreme Court judges, who are unelected and serve from appointment until age 70. They argue that giving more power to the ruling coalition is a more accurate reflection of the current will of the people. In their eyes, the relatively secular and centrist Supreme Court represents what Israel used to look and think like, but not how it does now. As ultra-Orthodox Jews, who feature prominently in the current coalition, become an increasingly large percentage of Israel’s population, they are shifting the country’s politics rightward, and the Supreme Court has been slow to follow. It has refused mass military exemption for the ultra-Orthodox and refused to legalize some of their settlements in the West Bank. 

While this line of reasoning appeals to many on the political right, the center and left-wing factions in Israel are unconvinced. They argue that the reforms will give too much power to the ruling coalition. Opponents of the reforms fear that giving the legislative branch of government so much power over the judiciary would drastically tilt the balance of power in such a way that the checks and balances necessary for democracy would erode. They are also concerned that the ruling coalition is attempting to make Israel a more theocratic nation and to take away the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and Palestinians.

Here is a sculpture of a crashed airplane, built by reserve pilots of the Israeli Air Force, to protest the reforms. It is located in front of the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv. (Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

The international community has also spoken out against the reforms. Government leaders across the world have expressed concern over the state of Israeli democracy, and the United States has taken a particular interest in the legislation. Numerous American politicians have warned of the damage the overhaul would cause to both Israel and the United States-Israel relationship. This relationship has already been on shakier ground recently due to policy differences between Netanyahu and Biden, as well as pressure from progressives in Congress to offer more support to the Palestinian cause. Many influential organizations of American Jews have also reacted negatively, since they fear that less traditional forms of Jewish practice, which have been threatened by the ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, would be without judicial protection.

Due to the strong backlash, the coalition made some changes intended to increase protections for democracy in an apparent attempt to mollify the protestors. The reforms have not yet been passed. Protests have calmed in the weeks since the proposal, but the public is still angry and concerned about the state of their country.

Yair Lapid, the Leader of the Opposition and of the centrist liberal party Yesh Atid, criticized the reforms and addressed yet another controversy surrounding them. Lapid declared, “what Yariv Levin presented today is not a legal reform, it is a threat. They threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel. I’m announcing now — on the day we return to power, all these changes will be canceled. Judges won’t be chosen by corrupt politicians who want them to close their cases.”

Lapid’s mention of “corrupt politicians” is likely a reference to the ongoing legal troubles faced by Netanyahu. These troubles started in 2016, when the Israeli police began investigating Netanyahu for trading favors with various businessmen. Those investigations yielded three separate cases against Netanyahu, which are being combined into one trial: Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000. Case 1000 alleges that Netanyahu received more than 1 million Israeli shekels (equivalent to $283,000) worth of cigars, champagne, and jewelry from the film producer Arnon Milchan as payment for promoting legislation that favored Milchan. Cases 2000 and 4000 accuse Netanyahu of illegally protecting the business interests of two popular newspapers, Walla and Yediot Aharonot, in exchange for favorable coverage. Because of these cases, many Israelis claim that Netanyahu is deliberately weakening Israel’s judicial system to escape justice. 

Netanyahu was indicted of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, but Israeli law allows the Prime Minister to stay in office even while standing trial. However, his alleged corruption has caused immense controversy within Israeli politics, and was one of the many divisive factors which triggered Israel’s long-standing legislative crisis. This crisis began in December of 2018, when the Knesset voted to dissolve itself following the breakup of Netanyahu’s coalition government. Israel held elections in April 2019, September 2019, March 2020, and March 2021, but these elections failed to create a truly stable and unified coalition. Netanyahu’s corruption charges made other parties refuse to form a coalition with him, and arguments over key topics like the state budget and military exemptions created further divisions. On November 1st, 2022, Israel held its most recent election, in which Netanyahu and his allies won enough votes to have a majority in the Knesset and form a coalition government. 

Here are protesters in Tel Aviv on April 8th, 2023. The flag states, “Government of Pirates.” (Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons)

This coalition has been controversial in its own right, as many of its members have also experienced legal troubles. A prominent example is Aryeh Deri, whom Netanyahu appointed as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Health. Deri was blocked from serving in those positions by the Supreme Court of Israel, who ruled him ineligible because he had been convicted in 1999 of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. Other government officials, such as Bezalel Smotrich, have courted controversy due to their extremism. Smotrich, the Minister of Finance, has repeatedly advocated for kicking Palestinians out of the West Bank and for segregating Jews and Palestinians in maternity wards. He also opposes gay rights and insists that the Israeli justice system should be based on the laws of the Torah, instead of a more modern legal code. He and his compatriots are broadly disapproved of by many Israelis for their views and actions, but none more so than Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Ben-Gvir, leader of Otzma, is the Minister of National Security. He, like Smotrich, lives in a settlement in the West Bank which is illegal under international law. From a young age, he has been affiliated with the terrorist Kach movement, and he first gained notoriety for serving as a lawyer for numerous Israelis accused of terrorism and hate crimes, including himself. Recently, Ben-Gvir has appeared in the news due to his several visits to the Temple Mount. Under the current agreement, Jews are prohibited from praying at the Temple Mount, which is a holy site in both Islamic and Jewish tradition, for fear of sparking outrage. On several occasions, Ben-Gvir has prayed very publicly at the site, drawing widespread condemnation. Muslims criticized his actions as a threat to their religious practices and a flagrant violation of a long-standing agreement, while many Jews saw his actions as an overly aggressive provocation and as disrespectful treatment of a place so holy that most Jews would not enter even if they were allowed to. However, Ben-Gvir’s right-wing allies in Otzma and other extreme religious groups loudly supported his actions, since they claim the Temple Mount as the sole property of the Jewish people and want to control it by force. 

The tensions in Israel over issues such as the Temple Mount and military exemptions have existed for decades, but lately they have been thrust further in the spotlight by an increasingly radical coalition. With so much at stake, both on the political and religious level, polarization and infighting has become dominant, and the public is quick to anger and fear. The powerful images from the recent protests are strong reminders of the future that awaits a government which is led by extremists.

“What Yariv Levin presented today is not a legal reform, it is a threat. They threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel. I’m announcing now — on the day we return to power, all these changes will be canceled.”  – Yair Lapid