Foreign Minister Penny Wong says she has raised “alarming trends” in Israel’s democracy with its government, as protests against a controversial overhaul of the country’s courts continue.
Tens of thousands of Israelis took part in nationwide demonstrations on Saturday, the 30th consecutive weekend they have vented their anger over the reforms, which would remove the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down government decisions.
Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, Israel is simultaneously expanding settlements in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law.
During a meeting with Labor MPs on Tuesday, Wong was asked whether Netanyahu’s government – through its judicial overhaul and policy on settlements – is leading Israel “down a less democratic path”.
Wong warned of “alarming trends” in Israeli democracy, saying she had raised Australia’s concerns with its government. She also described the acceleration of Israeli settlements as “an obstacle to peace” in the region.
SBS News has contacted the Israeli embassy for comment.
What are the reforms?
The reforms remove the ability of Israel’s Supreme Court to reverse laws or appointments made by the government which it deems unreasonable.
The court used those powers to overrule the appointment of Netanyahu ally Aryeh Deri in January, ruling it was “unreasonable in the extreme” to make him a minister given his prior criminal convictions.
The reforms would also give Netanyahu’s government greater powers to appoint judges, and the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority.
They would also reduce the power of apolitical legal advisers in the public service. Ministers are currently required to follow the advice of their legal advisers, though that obligation would be scrapped.
Why are the reforms in Israel controversial?
The reforms constitute the largest-ever changes to Israel’s legal system.
Netanyahu and his supporters argue they would address an imbalance between the parliament and judicial system, which they argue has become left-wing and elitist. He insists the judiciary will remain independent.
His opponents argue it is a major step towards undermining Israel’s democracy by removing the main check on government power. Some also argue the move is designed to protect Netanyahu, who is facing a corruption investigation.
Some military reservists have threatened not to report for duty if the reforms pass.
What’s the situation in Israel’s parliament?
Last month, Israeli opposition boycotted a vote
on the changes to the “reasonableness” test, yelling “for shame” before it passed 64-0 in their absence.
United States President Joe Biden’s administration described the passage of that change as “unfortunate”.
“As a lifelong friend of Israel, President Biden has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy to be enduring must have as broad a consensus as possible,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.
Netanyahu has said he hopes for a deal with the opposition over the rest of the reforms by November.