Mar 28, 2023

The protests in Israel.

The protests in Israel.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a wave of protests over judicial reforms. Image: World Economic Forum / Valeriano Di Domenico 

Plus, should Biden pardon Trump?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today, we're covering the massive protests in Israel, why they are happening, and what's behind the proposed judicial reforms. Plus, a reader asks about Biden pardoning Trump.

Quick hits.

  1. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) announced her plans to seek a third term as senator in 2024. (The announcement)
  2. Six people were killed, including three children, in a shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee. The 28-year-old suspect was a former student at the school. (The shooting)
  3. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said she will run for mayor of Houston. (The campaign)
  4. Philadelphia residents may be asked to avoid drinking tap water after a spill of latex emulsion into the Delaware River. (The water)
  5. A fire at a migrant center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on the U.S. border killed at least 39 people. (The fire)


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Today's topic.

The protests in Israel. On Monday, weeks of protests in Israel hit a fever pitch as hundreds of thousands of residents took to the streets in Tel Aviv immediately after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his defense minister for opposing his proposed judicial reforms.

Back-up: Like the U.S., Israel has three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial). Unlike the U.S., Israel is a parliamentary democracy, in which Israeli citizens vote for party lists instead of individual members to comprise the Knesset, the country’s legislative body. The largely ceremonial Israeli president then consults party leaders and picks a prime minister to form a coalition government.

Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, having logged more than 15 years total as leader. But in order to return to office for his sixth term last year, Netanyahu had to rely on a new coalition — one that included more far-right members and the religious wing of the Knesset. Given that he was already facing corruption charges, his return to power was contentious and divisive from the start, and this new coalition only amplified the issues.

Now what? There is no constitution in Israel, but instead a set of regulations known as "basic laws." The Supreme Court can strike down legislation if it believes it violates a basic law. Key members of Netanyahu's governing coalition made reforming the country's Supreme Court part of the deal for backing Netanyahu. Currently, the court is selected by a panel of three Supreme Court judges, two lawyers, two cabinet ministers and two members of the Knesset. The initial proposal from the coalition government would not only increase the number of Knesset seats on the panel, effectively giving the group a majority in picking judges, but would also allow a simple majority in the Knesset to reject the court's decisions.

Right-wing criticism of the court is not new. Conservatives have argued since the 1990s that the court has dramatically expanded the kinds of issues it could rule on and regularly stops the Knesset from passing new laws supported by the conservative majority in Israel. Netanyahu, who was barred from involvement in the court reform initiative because of his corruption charges, argues it will better balance and diversify the bench.

Many moderates and left-wing protesters in Israel have hit the streets in protest, though, saying the reforms would remove the only viable check and balance on the Israeli government.

What just happened? Over the weekend, Netanyahu's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who had been an ally of the prime minister’s, came out against the judicial overhaul. Gallant said the protests were impacting military preparedness. Netanyahu responded by firing him, which set off a massive mobilization of as many as 600,000 protesters. The nation's largest union asked its workers to strike, grinding the country to a halt. Some airports closed, city streets were overrun with protesters, and military reservists even stopped showing up for assignments. In Washington D.C., Israel's embassy announced it would be closed until further notice.

Startling images from the protests went viral on social media:

On Monday, Netanyahu responded by pausing the proposal until the parliament returns to session on April 30, saying it was a chance to "avoid civil war." The move leaves open the possibility of the overhaul but has calmed the protests temporarily.

Today, we are going to examine the proposed reforms and the protests with views from Israeli and American right and left, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • The left is harshly critical of the reforms, saying they threaten Israel's democracy.
  • Some argue Netanyahu has proved himself unfit for office.
  • Others say the reforms are part of a radical strategy by this government to attack the rule of law and infringe on Palestinian rights.

In Haaretz, the editorial board said Netanyahu "is unfit for office."

Netanayhu fired Yoav Gallant "because he did the right thing." the board said. "To protect the army from falling apart, Gallant said it was necessary to halt the destructive legislation that would upend our system of government. He thereby acted in a responsible, statesmanlike fashion, but he violated the mafia code of Netanyahu’s diehard fans. The price was immediate and cruel." It's "particularly worrisome evidence" that Netanyahu's "judgment has completely deserted him."

The board also urged readers to "keep up the pressure" until Netanyahu "scraps the coup." What's threatening Israel is "the trial of Netanyahu, and the defendant’s attempts to bend the law to his needs, and to control the appointment of judges at all cost." Experience shows Netanyahu will resort "to manipulation, lies and scheming" and opposition leaders need to tread carefully in their negotiations. They should "work under the assumption that Netanyahu’s plan is to suppress the protest, and that the call to talk could emerge as an attempt to kill the protest’s momentum."

In Vox, Jonathan Guyer said the judicial overhaul isn't the only crisis in Israel.

Netanyahu was elected "with the most extreme, nationalistic, and exclusionary government" in Israeli history. "The several bills put forward would restrict the court’s ability to overturn laws it sees as unconstitutional and allow a simple majority in the Knesset to reject its decisions. It would also give government lawmakers and appointees effective power over the committee of nine individuals that appoints judges, and rescind key authorities from the attorney general."

The result would be "majoritarian rule where minority groups like Palestinians" would face serious threats. Many former Israeli leaders "warned of fascism." This is only "one component" of the government's attack on the rule of law. It is also "proposing radical changes to the way the occupation of the West Bank is administered and other legal shifts inside Israel that will severely affect Palestinians," including the "transfer of military authority over the occupied West Bank to the hands of civilian government."

In The Los Angeles Times, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote about "the fall of Netanyahu."

He may not realize it yet, but Netanyahu's "coalition of ultra-nationalists, religious fundamentalists and the merely corrupt is losing its moral legitimacy, even among growing numbers of its voters.” The "fatal mistake" was firing Yoav Gallant, who opposed "legislation that would erode the independence of Israel’s Supreme Court and destroy the nation’s fragile system of checks and balances." Gallant warned about security, noting the "deepening rift" within the army over the plan.

By firing Gallant, Netanyahu "placed loyalty to himself above loyalty to country... The man who’d convinced Israelis that only he was tough and shrewd enough to keep Israel safe in the Middle East has betrayed Israeli security." Meanwhile, members of Netanyahu's Likud party "declared their support for suspending his judicial legislation and negotiating with the opposition on reform instead." There is "no more patriotic protest movement anywhere" than the one for Israeli democracy, which is "led by the country's toughest combat units and whose symbol is the Israeli flag."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right support judicial reforms, and argue that the reaction is overblown.
  • Many argue Netanyahu is fundamentally right about the court being radicalized and having too much latitude.
  • Others argue the best course of action is restricting the kinds of cases the court can rule on.

In Israel Hayom, Jerome M. Marcus said Israeli citizens "have a right to govern themselves."

The court "has long been criticized because it imposes rules on the country that most of the country thinks are wrong." It's odd to see this predicament defended in the streets as "democracy." The way for Israel to be respected by the world "is to respect itself." That also means "respecting the judgment of its citizens and their right to govern themselves. The insistence on broad powers for Israel's Supreme Court is based on the conviction that Israeli voters don't have the right to govern themselves, because if they did, they would make the wrong decisions."

Perhaps citizens "would decide to be too harsh to Arabs who hurt or threaten Jews," or "make the country too religious," or be "inadequately respectful of Reform and Conservative Judaism." Maybe "they would give too much money to the Haredim." Since these things are "bad," Israel's voters can't "be allowed to choose them... If 15 justices on the Supreme Court can stop these things, they must be empowered [by citizens] to do so... No other country in the world is governed like this. No other country in the world treats itself or its own citizens like this. Israeli citizens have the right to govern themselves."

In Spectator, John Pietro said "Israel is not on the verge of authoritarianism."

Rather, the Israeli Supreme Court "is one of the most activist courts in the world" and "has assigned itself more authority and subverted the balance of power between Israel’s different branches of government," all "without accountability to the electorate." Without a constitution, "there is no higher legal authority against which to judge the validity of laws," and in theory left Israel with parliamentary supremacy. But that "has been usurped by the judiciary."

The "constitutional revolution" was spearheaded by Supreme Court President Aharon Barak in the 1990s, who "ushered in an extreme understanding of the 'reasonableness doctrine,' whereby the court could strike down administrative actions that it deemed unreasonable." This "includes if the action is 'fully complying with all legal requirements and resting on uncontested statutory authorization,'" and the court went further, "effectively claiming jurisdiction over everything... Nothing in either the public or private sphere was beyond the scope of the court."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said Israel needs judicial reform — but how?

"Israeli democracy isn't dying," the board said. "Even if the reforms were to abolish judicial review of legislation, leaving the Knesset supreme, this would drag Israel all the way back to... 1995. It was a democracy then, and no aberration. A sovereign parliament is the norm in parliamentary democracies that lack a written constitution for courts to enforce." There was no consensus for the "judicial revolution" in which the high court "made itself the final arbiter on all things" beginning in the 1980s. "The court has reviewed cabinet appointments, budget allocations, combat decisions and even whether the Prime Minister is 'unfit' for office.

"It also empowers the attorney general, a civil servant, to pre-veto government policies with legally binding opinions," the board wrote. Most of the reforms are "sensible," including removing the court's power over selection of new justices. The clause allowing a Knesset majority to override the court is a problem, not because it’s "giving elected representatives the last word on most matters of law," but because it's "a recipe for unending and corrosive constitutional conflict." The government should "restore the standard restrictions on which cases the court will hear," then let the court "rule within its areas of competency."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Israel's Supreme Court does need reforms, and I don't think this is about Netanyahu's corruption trial.
  • However, a proposal allowing a simple majority to overrule the court is extreme and dangerous.
  • Israel is facing several seemingly intractable problems, and I don't know how to resolve any of them.

The hardest part about this story — for American readers — is letting go of our understanding of how our courts and our government works. Israel is not the United States and its democracy functions differently, so viewing this crisis solely through that lens creates some problems. Of course, if a U.S. president or Congress were to remove the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down its legislation, that would be a massive crisis. Yet that isn’t really what is happening here — there is no empowered president, no Congress, no constitutional authority, and no real limit on this current court. The U.S. system can still offer some useful context, but it’s not at all analogous.

So let me start by tallying some points for team Netanyahu: First, I think Netanyahu's corruption trial is mostly a distraction here. It’s a nice partisan talking point, but I don’t think this is about self-protection. It was his Knesset allies who made judicial reform critical to holding this coalition together, and it was those allies — not Netanyahu — who have made the major push in recent weeks. This is a longstanding right-wing priority, far pre-dating the corruption trial.

More importantly, I also think it's true the Supreme Court in Israel needs reforming. One of the court’s problems is that it is chosen by unelected members who are largely picking other like-minded folks and watering down its ideological diversity (shifting the balance to the left). A much larger problem is that the court is intervening in matters of Israeli society that are far more expansive than should be acceptable, with no binding constitution or set of detailed, codified laws (beyond the vague basic laws) to work from.

The court heard 9,000 cases in 2022 (compared to the 180 heard by the U.S. Supreme Court). Pretty much anyone can bring a case to the court, and as the WSJ editorial board noted (under "What the right is saying") its decisions are far-reaching: Want to remove a cabinet member? The court might hear it. How about combat decisions? Or the fitness of the prime minister?

Changing the system for picking judges to something that more resembles the U.S. — where elected members get a weighty say — is not a radical idea worthy of nationwide protests. As Ruthie Blum wrote, protesters are more likely unified in their angst toward Netanyahu than judicial reforms.

Yet other elements of the proposal are that radical, most obviously allowing the Knesset to strike down court decisions by majority vote. In the U.S., our protection against majoritarian rule is that the Supreme Court can review any legislation — even that which passed with a supermajority — to determine if it violates the Constitution. But even before it gets to the court, new legislation must have more than a razor-thin majority — it has to pass the House, get 60 of 100 votes in the Senate, and then be signed by a president.

The totality of these reforms in Israel would allow a 61 of 120 majority in the Knesset to essentially run roughshod over the country. It's ludicrous on a basic sniff test, and it's part of the reason Netanyahu is seeing such unprecedented upheaval across the country. Opposition from the military is more complicated (some worry that without legitimate judicial review, Israel's military could face even more international scrutiny than it already does), but the outspoken objections from former allies, former leaders, former Netanyahu supporters, and members of the military has certainly alarmed me.

Frankly, the truth of this moment is even more tenuous than the headlines suggest. Israel just has a lot of intractable problems: It can't keep a leader, it's basic laws are nebulous, its current Prime Minister is aided by its most extreme coalition ever, that Prime Minister might be corrupt, its Supreme Court regularly overreaches, and the internal strife of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is worsening by the day. "Fixing" the court is like playing whack-a-mole on one of these issues, and even if they were to do it "right" — that is, incrementally — it would probably mean Netanyahu loses his coalition, the current government disintegrates, and a new election comes, while all the other issues persist or worsen.

I don't know how to resolve all that. But I do know it's a mess.


One of the most common questions I get in Tangle is "can you do more international news?" or "what about a Tangle for Country X?" While we focus primarily on politics in the United States, I am thrilled to announce a new partnership with DailyChatter, an international news organization built in the same ethos as Tangle. It's the most neutral, even-handed international round-up I've found, and one of the first reads for me every morning. You can try it for 2 weeks for free, and it's just $29.95 a year after that. 84% of all users who try DailyChatter for free stick around after their trial. Sign up here. So far, the feedback from Tangle readers has been great!

Your questions, answered.

Q: Tell me if this is crazy: With all the uproar surrounding the pending Trump indictment in New York, I think Biden should pardon him for "Stormygate."

1) I'm no expert, but it sounds as though it's not likely for Trump to face any serious consequences from it anyway (and there's already the Fulton Country and classified doc cases)

2) The main point has already been brought to the public's attention again (Trump has done bad things), and

3) Biden could totally defang one of Trump's big grievances ("see, the Democrats are just out to get me")

I understand it'll never happen, but I think it could be a smart (and hilarious) move strategically.

— Joe from Westmont, Illinois

Tangle: Yes, it is an "out there" proposal, and it will obviously never happen, because I think most Democrats would hate Biden for it, but I wholeheartedly agree with all three of your points. I'd also add a few more: Most Americans are not going to think a former president should be indicted for campaign finance violations, more serious charges against Trump still loom that should see their day in court, and Biden could use the pardon as a talking point if he and Trump are the nominees in 2024.

I think if it were done as an honest act of reaching out with an olive branch (rather than a savvy political ploy), there would be serious upside. Again: Biden would never do it, as I'm sure he genuinely loathes Trump and he also does not want to be viewed as "interfering" with a criminal case. But I think it’s an idea just wild enough to work. It would shift the conversation, and I genuinely have no idea how Trump would react.

Interestingly, you're not the only one suggesting this. In fact, there have been a few opinion pieces from over the last few years — even from the hard left perspective — calling for a Trump pardon. Newsweek just published one from Ohio's former deputy attorney general yesterday.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

A new poll from the University of Chicago resulted in some answers that are catching the eye of social scientists and politicos. Just 1% of Americans said the nation's economy was "excellent" and 33% said they have little or no confidence in public schools. Meanwhile, respondents who said patriotism was important fell from 70% in 1998 to 38%. Respondents who said religion was important fell from 62% to 39%. Respondents who said community involvement was important dropped from 47% to 27%. Perhaps most alarmingly, the respondents who said tolerance of others was "very important" fell from 80% just four years ago to 58% today. The Wall Street Journal (paywall) has the story.


  • 66%. The percentage of Israeli citizens who agree that its high court should be able to strike down laws contrary to the nation's basic laws, according to a February poll.
  • 44%. The percentage of coalition voters (those who supported Netanyahu's government) who said they agreed the court should be able to strike down laws contrary to the nation's basic laws.
  • 63%. The percentage of Israeli citizens who agree that the present system requiring concurrence between members of Knesset and justices for judicial appointments is appropriate.
  • 45%. The percentage of Israeli citizens who oppose the proposal that the Knesset can override the court with a majority vote.
  • 25%. The percentage of Israeli citizens who support the proposal to allow the Knesset to override the court with a majority vote.
  • 23%. The percentage of Israeli citizens who would support the proposal if it increased the majority required to override a decision.

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered Biden's speech in Warsaw, Poland, on the war in Ukraine.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: Our accidental advertisement for Morning Brew.
  • Good vibes: 47.7% of Tangle readers said they didn't mind Friday's clickbait and they enjoyed the article, the most of any response. 34.5% said they did not appreciate the clickbait but they did enjoy the article.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Scientists found millions of small glass beads on the moon that are storing water.
  • Take the poll: Do you think the Israeli Supreme Court should be reformed? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.