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Not all supporters of Israel’s Reasonableness Standard Bill are far-right religious nationalists – Here is what they say

With anti-government protesters on one side and religious supporters of the judicial reform on the other, there is one group in the heated debate that is often overlooked

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of the government's judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on July 23, 2023. (Photo: Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Within the contentious debate over judicial reform in Israel, there are two groups that receive the most attention and media coverage: Anti-government opponents and religious supporters of the reform. Other groups, like Arab-Israeli opponents and secular reform supporters, are often overlooked. Their views do not perfectly fit either of the previous categories. 

‘Why aren’t you protesting more often against the reform?’ Arab-Israelis are being asked, given their clear opposition to Israel’s most right-wing government. The answer is rooted in a deep distrust of government institutions and the protests' lack of emphasis on Arab affairs among other issues.  

‘How come you don’t see the danger of Israel turning into an ultra-orthodox theocracy through this reform?’, opponents often wonder when they encounter a secular right-wing supporter of the measure. 

The answer is as complex as the situation itself. 

Anti-government protesters have been the loudest group in Israel over the past 29 weeks. Israelis from right to left, north to south, already know how to recite their main concerns and arguments. They see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passing of the Reasonableness Standard Bill as the beginning of an “end” of Israeli democracy. 

In other words, they see this as phase one of a right-wing power grab to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court by curbing its authority and disrupting the system of checks and balances between government branches.

Their protest against the reform contains different undertones reflecting long-time tensions in Israeli society: Tensions between the secular and religious sectors of the population, the ones who served in the military and the ones who did not, those living in big cities and those in the periphery. 

Specifically, the law that passed on Monday is being viewed by reform opponents as one designed for the personal benefit of Shas party's chair, Knesset Member Aryeh Deri. The Supreme Court recently ruled that appointing Deri, an ultra-orthodox confidant of Netanyahu, as minister is “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his two prior convictions. This, even though there is no law that explicitly prevents such an appointment and Deri was democratically elected to the Knesset. 

Against this backdrop, it is easy to understand why opponents of the government lament the scrapping of the court’s ‘reasonableness standard’ in judicial review, and why many religious supporters of the government approve of it. 

But what about non-religious supporters of the reform? According to a local news source, they are among the secular Israelis who pay six times more in taxes than the ultra-Orthodox, who are represented by Deri and his Shas party. Many of these right-wing secular voters are also not happy about Netanyahu’s coalition partners from the far-right, such as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.  

Why would they still support such an overhaul of the judiciary? 

One reason is that opponents see the reform as intertwined with the rise of right-wing religious influence in governance. Secular supporters of the reform tend to differentiate between the two issues. 

“Those who consume their news from mainstream media don’t see the ‘reasonable rightist’ on the street, explaining why the reform is important to him,” wrote attorney Doron Nehemia, one of the founders of ‘Nativ BaLikud,' an organization that seeks to promote a 'national and liberal agenda' within the Likud party. 

“They see the high-tech dissident, the retired dissident, the wealthy dissident – all of them are round characters that express the deep anxiety on their side. The opponents do not see similar characters from the other side because mainstream news channels have no interest in presenting them. Why present empathetic characters when you can broadcast [Likud MK] Dudi Amsalem with his filthy mouth or the stupid trolling of Ben Gvir?” 

Prof. Gadi Taub, a prominent Israeli conservative and political commentator, explained to ALL ISRAEL NEWS why he considers the courts' interference with Deri’s appointment as “an extreme example of judicial overreach and a demonstration that this whole thing is a political struggle.” 

“They demanded the firing of their Deri without any basis in the law… There is nothing illegal about him serving as a minister,” Taub noted. “The court thinks that it can overrule the public's democratic choice, not on the basis of law, but on the basis of reasonableness.”

“By reasonable, what is now meant is, 'Does the judge like it?' Basically, this is a lawless system in which judges feel they can intervene, not just in the legality of decisions, but in the content of decisions of all other organs of government,” he added. 

In a recent radio interview, Taub said, "In any democratic country, the court must review the actions of the government and the executive authority. No governmental authority must have unlimited power that can be exercised arbitrarily and without rules. In Israel, another stage has developed - the 'reasonableness stage'. This comes even when everything is completely in order, there is an agreement and the procedure is proper, but the judge simply does not like the result in terms of his worldview. This has no equivalent in other democracies. It does not make sense that a judge replaces the judgment of an elected official or an elected government."

When it comes to ruling on policy issues, Nehemia wrote: “Secular right-wing Israelis don’t understand how it is possible that a Supreme Court that has a certain progressive agenda, takes upon itself the freedom to determine public policy on critical issues such as immigration, security, economy, based on arbitrary grounds while taking power away from elected officials without the consent of the public.”

“When they read that the High Court decided, for example, on a new refugee admissions policy in a puzzling way - it makes their blood boil, and rightfully so. A court should not determine immigration policy, nor should it tie the country's hands and force it to accept tens of thousands of migrant workers. The secular right-wing party is also losing faith in the court,” he added. 

“This is a very important day for Israeli democracy,” wrote Dr. Sagi Barmak, director of the Adam Smith Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Argaman Institute.

“Not because of the content of the law that passed. The effect of reducing the reasonableness standard will be negligible. This is a very important day for Israeli democracy because it is the first time that the Israeli parliament sets an explicit limit to the Supreme Court and tells it it can only get this far and no more. The really surprising thing about it is that it’s only happening now.” 

Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.

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