What’s happening: Israel has been rocked with widespread protests over the last few weeks because of right-wing attempts to reform the judicial system. The Biden administration is supporting Israel’s political left during the upheaval, returning to hands-on, Obama-styled diplomacy.
Inside the Supreme Court debate: Israel doesn’t have a constitution and lacks clearly defined checks and balances, so the country’s Supreme Court wrote its own pseudo-constitution—defining its own limitations, without outside approval—and uses it for rulings. In the ‘90s, the Court adopted a rule allowing itself to block nearly any “unreasonable” policy, or any policy it doesn’t like. The Court also controls the justice selection process, unlike in America where elected officials do, leaving Israel’s Court nearly untouchable to the voters.
The power struggle: Because of these issues, the Court has been an elite left-wing stronghold for three decades. The political right, despite winning elections, can’t change that. Right-wing voters see the Court as a roadblock to democratic representation while left-wing voters see it as a permanent safeguard from the religious right. In this case, reform would objectively increase Democratic representation by strengthening elected leaders and adding checks and balances, though the Biden-aligned opposition has framed it as an attack on democracy.
The reforms: The right-wing coalition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promised reforms to introduce formal checks on the Court. It wants to eliminate the “unreasonable” standard, increase political diversity on the Court, and, most controversial, allow Israel’s parliamentary body to override a Court ruling with a supermajority, though the coalition is willing to drop the last point for compromise.
What does Biden have to do with it? President Joe Biden’s State Department is funding local activists and protests and backing the coalition that wants to oust Netanyahu. The administration has also riled up the Israeli populace by calling Netanyahu’s efforts an attack on Democracy, a framing similarly used against former President Donald Trump. These efforts are a reminder of President Barack Obama’s unsuccessful 2015 attempt to remove Netanyahu, who fought back against that administration’s Iran deal and is now doing the same against Biden’s efforts to revive the deal.