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Israel's lack of a constitution makes an independent judiciary crucial for democracy

(SOUNDBITE OF HORNS HONKING)

: That's the sound of huge protests in Tel Aviv. Israel has held five elections in recent years, and that's resulted in no-confidence votes, failed coalitions, continuing turmoil. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government attempted a judiciary overhaul, which would give the government unprecedented control over Israel's Supreme Court. This has brought out massive protests and strikes. The prime minister put those plans on hold for the moment. We are joined now by Michal Cotler-Wunsh. She's a former member of the Knesset. She served in the liberal and centrist Blue and White alliance in 2020 and '21. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAL COTLER-WUNSH: Thank you for having me, Scott.

: I wonder, is the prime minister's attempt to take power away from the judiciary a sign to you that democracy is in trouble? Or do the demonstrations show democracy is healthy?

COTLER-WUNSH: So I'd like to suggest that democracy is very healthy in Israel. And I actually think that the demonstrations that we see are a clear indication of that, Scott, and - actually, demonstrations on both sides. So - whereas the last few weeks, 12 weeks, have been sort of a rise in demonstrations against this specific reform, in the last couple of days, there have been sort of demonstrations that support the need for reform. And maybe we can dive in a little deeper into that.

: Well, go ahead and dive, please.

COTLER-WUNSH: (Laughter) OK. What we're seeing is actually far, far beyond the specifics of the reform. Having been a young lawyer myself at the time that the constitutional revolution passed in Israel's parliament, in Knesset, as one basic law, that sort of echoed the beginning of a bill of rights, but did so very, very partially. That happened in the '90s, that constitutional revolution. And a part of what we're seeing now is actually an attempt to renegotiate the checks and balances between the three branches of government in a healthy democracy.

: Israel doesn't have a constitution, right?

COTLER-WUNSH: You are a hundred percent right. Israel does not have a constitution. It has the Declaration of Independence. And I would argue that the fact that that Declaration of Independence was never anchored in law is part of this moment that we've arrived at, at this moment of time.

: Because Israel does not have a constitution, does that make the role of the Supreme Court especially critical when it comes to protecting rights?

COTLER-WUNSH: In fact, it has an incredibly critical role, I agree with you. I would argue, as in every democracy, the judiciary, the executive and the legislative branch have their checks and balances between them. The lack of constitution actually makes this more difficult. And in fact, this incredibly challenging moment very possibly harbors that opportunity.

: Help us understand the numbers of people who've been turning out in Tel Aviv and elsewhere.

COTLER-WUNSH: There are reports of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators that have come to the streets to contest, allegedly, just this specific reform. In my view, it's not just about the reform. To be very honest, Scott, there is a real struggle for Israel's identity. Is it the democratic state of all its people, a liberal democracy? Is it a Jewish law, or a Jewish Halakha state? Or is it as it was founded to be, according to the Declaration of Independence, the nation state of the Jewish people, an Indigenous people returned to their ancestral homeland after millennia of exile and persecution, committed to equality?

: Netanyahu's governing coalition says the Supreme Court doesn't represent the popular opinion of the people. What's your impression?

COTLER-WUNSH: A Supreme Court or a court in general should certainly reflect the society in which it rules. And in many, many ways, as Israel is a young democracy, I do think that that is one of the underlying processes that sees manifesting very, very clear anger. But there is sort of a process in which the majority moderates have been squeezed out. And as a result, the extremities, or the more radical voices, have been empowered. And some of them are sitting in this coalition government.

: Prime Minister Netanyahu's been indicted on corruption charges. His trial is ongoing. Is it proper he should be interfering with the - or affecting the judiciary at all?

COTLER-WUNSH: Israel's law actually allows an indicted prime minister, until he is found guilty by a court of law, to continue functioning as prime minister. That has been one of the most difficult pieces and, I believe, has led to that five-elections-in-3.5-years reality. It has destabilized Israeli politics very, very seriously. And even if the reform were to pass, the next government that would be elected would be able to amend the law. And I remind us all that, you know, legislation is really something that parliaments have to be the ones that address.

: Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a former member of the Knesset, thanks so much for being with us.

COTLER-WUNSH: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.