Demonstration in Brussels against judicial overhaul in Israel calls on the EU to speak out

Demonstration in Brussels against judicial overhaul in Israel calls on the EU to speak out
Credit: The Brussels Times

A demonstration against the new far-right Israeli government’s proposal for a judicial reform took place at Place du Luxembourg on Tuesday evening and finished with the organisers handing over a copy of an on-line petition to European Parliament Vice-President Nicola Beer addressed to all the European institutions.

The demonstration, organized by pro-democracy Israeli expats in Brussels, passed peacefully. A small group of anti-Israeli counterdemonstrators tried to disrupt the demonstration but was removed by the police.

By the demonstration, Brussels joined the growing protest movement outside Israel against the judicial reform. According to the opposition, the reform should rather be called a judicial coup because of its far-reaching consequences for the rule of law in the country and the way how the government is pushing it through without any broad agreement.

As previously reported, the demonstrations in Israel against the government proposal have continued for several weeks and gathered hundreds of thousands of people from all sectors of society but they have not yet convinced the government to suspend the legislative process and start a dialogue with the opposition parties on a consensus solution as proposed by the country’s president.

The demonstrators in Brussels raised posters saying ‘Stop the coup’, ‘Stand for democracy’, ‘Silence = death for democracy’. In the petition, which already has been signed on-line by hundreds of people, they call on EU decision-makers to speak out before it is too late and warn the Israeli government of the implications for EU-Israeli relations if the reform is implemented.

“This demonstration is part of a tidal wave of pro-democracy demonstrations in Israel and around the world,” Dan Sobovitz, one of the organisers, told The Brussels Times. “We’ve been seeing Israeli expats and Jewish communities organising their own demonstrations in dozens of cities from Sydney to San Francisco, including many European capitals.”

The Brussels demonstration is unique in the sense that it is also the home of the EU institutions, he added. “That is why we also invited non-Israelis and non-Jews who care about preserving the Israeli democracy, the only one in the Middle East. We also decided to demonstrate in front of the European Parliament in order to call on EU leaders to speak out in support Israel’s pro-democracy camp.”

There might be a tendency in the EU not to interfere in the internal discussions in a third country but Dan thinks that the EU should at least inform the Israeli public and leadership about how the anti-democratic legislation may affect the close EU – Israel relations. “We might as well hear about it before rather than after the bill passes. And the bill is meant to go through within only a few weeks’ time!”

A crucial question is if the proposed judicial reform really is about a regime change which threatens democracy and the rule of law.

“Absolutely, he replied. “Israeli democracy has been fragile to begin with: no written constitution, an unicameral legislature, a highly polarised society and a century long violent conflict. The Israeli judiciary is therefore a crucial branch in ensuring checks and balances on the government and a potential tyranny of the majority.”

The EU reluctancy to interfere in the internal debate in Israel is reciprocated by the Israeli government and its diplomatic representatives abroad that consider the judicial reform as an internal issue and declines to comment on it while the internal process is going on.

The new Israeli government claims that it was democratically elected and got a mandate to restore the proper balance between the different branches of government and legislate against what it considers the overreach of the judiciary.

“The Israeli government was indeed democratically elected,” Dan admits. “It received a mandate to govern as an executive branch. If it sees fit to change the balance between the executive and the judicial branches, and if it is genuinely interested in ‘restoring democracy’ as it claims, it should have attempted to build the broadest possible consensus around the new system it proposes.”

“Instead, it’s legislating in a haste, attempting to bring about a regime change within a few weeks. That is why experts around the world are calling it a coup rather than a reform. The government is showing no sign of having innocent intentions but rather to accumulate powers in a way which is very similar to other countries which have seen the backslide from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy or authoritarianism.

What worries him most is that the outcome in Israel is likely to be far worse than in other countries who have followed the trend away from democracy.

“Israel does not have EU law that prevails over national law, nor an EU supreme court, like in the case of Poland and Hungary. To make things worse, the escalation of violence we have been seeing between Israelis and Palestinians could make the situation even more inflammable once the government has no institutional restraint.”

Should the EU use its leverage or influence to urge the Israeli government to reconsider its plans for the judicial overhaul?

“I think the EU should make it clear to the Israeli government what is at stake. The agreements signed with Israel were signed with a democratic Israel. The preamble of the Israel – EU Association Agreement mentions that it was based on shared democratic values. If this Agreement is at risk, I would expect the EU to say it out loud right now before the legislation has passed. The day after, it might be too late.”

Should Jewish communities abroad boycott the extreme-right ministers in the Israeli government, such as the budget minister and the national security minister, as happened when the former one visited the UK as a Knesset member?

“Absolutely. I believe and hope that the Jewish community in the US will act the same way and remind the world that Minister Smotrich does not represent any Jewish value, on the contrary. American Jews are predominantly on the liberal side of the spectrum, especially when it comes to women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, migration, etc.”

A weakness of the mass demonstrations in Israel is the lack of Israeli-Palestinian participants. Are you trying to reach out to Palestinian organisations in Brussels and organize a joint demonstration?

“So far it has not been the case and I’m not against the idea. I admit that reaching a consensus among Israeli Jews has not always been easy and I imagine that adding Israeli-Palestinians would make it even more challenging. But I agree that in order for our struggle to be coherent, it should strive to protect and include all Israeli citizens.”

Will a demonstration in Brussels make any difference?

“If I didn’t believe it had a chance, I wouldn't be here today. I hope that the pressure we put on the EU institutions would encourage them to make their voice heard and convince the Israeli government to stop this destructive bill. Negotiations cannot be done with a gun turned to your head. That is why I agree with the Israeli opposition who refuses to dialogue as long as the legislative process continues full-speed.”

Vice-President Nicola Beer expressed her concerns about the proposed judicial reform which could result in the end of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. This would be a threat to the basic principles of democracy.

At the same time, she was cautiously optimistic and referred to her recent meetings with Israeli lawmakers from the government who seemed positive to reaching a consensus solution with the opposition.

“I pointed out in the meetings in Israel that a constitutional reform has to be based on broad support. Engaging in a discussion, being outspoken, especially as a friend, can be more constructive at the moment than a public blame game.”

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times

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