“It is an act of democratic backsliding”: Humboldtian on the judicial reform in Israel

Israel faces a judicial reform that could potentially alter the course of democracy. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the controversial plans proposed by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government. Political scientist and former Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Or Tuttnauer, talks about the political crisis in his country.

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Portrait Or Tuttnauer
Or Tuttnauer
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After announcing a judicial reform that will severely affect the country's justice system and expand the power of the current right-wing government, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is under immense pressure from all sections of society. Mass protests and widespread strikes are taking place across Israel, which shut down the main airport and triggered walkouts in industry. Now, Netanyahu has announced the reform will be delayed. Will that ultimately change the situation? We asked political scientist and former Humboldt Postdoctoral Researcher Or Tuttnauer, whose research focuses on trade-offs between conflict and cooperation within government systems, to give us his perspective on the developments in Israel.

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Or Tuttnauer

is an MZES Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mannheim Centre for European Social Research at the University of Mannheim. He received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2018. From 2018-2023, he was a visiting researcher in Mannheim and from 2020 to 2023, a Humboldt Postdoctoral Research Fellow. His research interests include parliaments and parliamentary behaviour, electoral behaviour, and political parties. Specifically, he has been studying the behaviour of opposition parties and the connections between their parliamentary activity and the electoral arena.

Humboldt Foundation: As tens of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the controversial judicial reform in Israel, what are the public’s main concerns?
Or Tuttnauer: You could say there is an immediate concern about the “reform” itself and a broader concern about its context. The reform itself would allow the government to single-handedly control appointments to the judiciary and weaken the ability of the supreme court (as well as the government’s legal staff) to review the legality of new legislation and government actions. In Israel, which lacks a constitution, a bill of rights, or additional legislative chambers, this will remove the few checks on executive power that still exist. It is evident that this “reform” is part of an attempted democratic backsliding: “highjack” the judiciary, then limit the opposition and tilt the electoral playing field to favour the ruling part(ies). We’ve seen it in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Venezuela.

What does the legal reform mean for democracy and the political system in Israel? What would be the worst scenario for you personally?
The worst-case scenario is one where the government gains complete control, the rule of law is effectively demolished, and Israel ceases to be a democracy. The problem is that it would then get even worse. If the reform succeeds, Israel will become not only less free but also poorer. The liberal sector, the main driver of economic success in the last decades and whose members populate not only the economic and scientific elite but also the military ranks, will shrink. Increasing violence between social groups is likely. Now, we will get a delay in the legislation, forced upon the coalition by the extraordinary public outrage. However, the main part of the reform could be reinvoked at any moment and passed in a single day. So, the opposition and protestors need to stay vigilant.

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Looking at the different positions within Netanyahu’s coalition, what trade-offs have there been between the ultranationalists and Likud and what do you think are the potential outcomes of the crisis?
The different parties want to weaken the judiciary, each one for its own reasons. The extreme right wants to expand Israel’s hold on the occupied territories and promote Jewish supremacy within Israel’s borders without being held to legal standards sanctioned by the supreme court. The ultra-orthodox parties want to extract benefits for their voters without being subjected to principles of equality. Netanyahu wishes to remain in power even while he is on trial and may very well be convicted. To get the ultranationalists’ consent to the delay, Netanyahu agreed to proceed with funding a kind of militia under the Minister of Homeland Security Itamar Ben-Gvir’s authority. Given Ben-Gvir’s background of supporting Jewish supremacy terrorists, this is bad news. Whatever conflicts arose within the coalition seem to be about the tactics of the reform, not its substance.

Do you think the legal reform will also affect scientific freedom? What might be the potential consequences for scientific research and infrastructures?
Likud MPs and activists have long attacked academics as detached and traitorous elites. There have been attempts (and successes) in recent years to curtail voices in the media and the education system criticising the government. An NGO that acted as an academia watchdog has been broadly backed and supported by Likud. All these trends point to a likely future crackdown on academia, first and foremost the social sciences.

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