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War in Gaza ends effort by Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judiciary

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The war in Gaza is reshaping Israeli politics. It ended an effort by Benjamin Netanyahu's government to overhaul the judiciary, which many in Israel saw as an attempt to break the country's democracy. But as NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Jerusalem, some who protested the legislation worry the threat could return.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: This year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government pushed for something called judicial reform. It was a dry-sounding package of legislation that convulsed the country. Many Israelis were so worried about the impact on their democracy...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

LANGFITT: ...They took to the streets in the hundreds of thousands. It was a political awakening, and one of the architects of the reform is Simcha Rothman. And he has this message.

SIMCHA ROTHMAN: When you talk about the judicial reform, I think it's dead.

LANGFITT: Rothman chairs the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee in the Knesset, Israel's Parliament. This is a huge about-face. But Rothman says with the country at war, it's time for unity.

ROTHMAN: I hope and I'm certain that when the soldiers and their families will come back from the war, they will look at their elected officials and they will say, please stop stupid fights.

LANGFITT: Many still distrust this government and fear that when the war ends, it could try again. Itzhak Berke (ph) is a retired university professor I met at a recent anti-government rally in Tel Aviv.

ITZHAK BERKE: Until they're gone from power, nothing is dead. They're working on it constantly.

LANGFITT: Critics say the government wants to control the courts to erode minority rights, make it harder to fight official corruption and pave the way for the annexation of the West Bank. And the fights aren't over. The government, which includes conservative religious parties, is still jockeying for control over Supreme Court appointments, according to Israeli media. This infuriates Gigi Levy-Weiss.

GIGI LEVY-WEISS: Have we learned nothing?

LANGFITT: Levy-Weiss is a well-known venture capitalist and a member of Brothers and Sisters in Arms, a group of military reservists who helped lead this year's pro-democracy protests.

LEVY-WEISS: How can it be that you're still thinking about how do I get what I want in this period? And the answer is that I think this is a government that is not thinking about its people. This is a government that is still busy with power grabs.

NOA SATTATH: My name is Noa Sattath and I am the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.

LANGFITT: Which is essentially Israel's ACLU. The government claims it wants to reform the judiciary because the institution is unaccountable. But Sattath says the real goal is to weaken the court's ability to challenge government and parliamentary action.

SATTATH: The idea was to remove the checks and balances, which were very poor to begin with, and permit any government legislation.

LANGFITT: Sattath says the system here is vulnerable to these kinds of tactics.

SATTATH: In Israel, we have no constitution, we have only one house of Parliament. We have a very, very weak separation between the executive branch and the legislative branch. So the judicial system is really the main or even the only check and balance on government power.

LANGFITT: And Sattath says the government is working on at least several dozen other bills to undermine the democratic system. In Israel, candidates can be banned from running for office if they've expressed support for terrorism. Sattath worries that the government will try to expand the definition of support to disqualify Palestinian political leaders.

SATTATH: To ban some of the political representation would be disastrous both in the sense that it would change the political system altogether, but also because any minority that is not represented becomes radicalized.

LANGFITT: So much has changed in Israel since October 7, including Brothers and Sisters in Arms. On the day of the attack, the group pivoted away from protests against the judicial overhaul and rushed to rescue survivors. Like other volunteer groups, Brothers and Sisters filled a vacuum in the early days of the war, when the government was not only caught by surprise but also slow to respond. Ronen Kohler (ph) is a former submarine captain and a founding member of the group. He says Brothers and Sisters has created 25 kindergartens and hotels where war evacuees are living.

RONEN KOHLER: Essentially, it's a room in the hotel that we equipped with toys and, you know, padded walls. And we hired a teacher. It's not very expensive, it's not very complicated.

LANGFITT: And Kohler says members of Brothers and Sisters are thinking about other ways that they can affect change in Israel.

KOHLER: I think what I really would like to see is having some of our people as part of the Knesset.

LANGFITT: Running for office?

KOHLER: Running for office. I think it's inevitable because this is the practical, pragmatic way to influence.

LANGFITT: Such is the political evolution here in Israel. What many say began as a government attempt to undermine democracy may now inspire people to challenge that same government at the ballot box. Elections could come as early as next year.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.

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