Israel’s Supreme Court debates law limiting powers in historic showdown with government


Israel’s highest court embarked on a pivotal legal battle today, as it opened hearings on a law designed to curtail its authority. This highly anticipated case may thrust the judiciary into a collision course with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firm-handed government after months of widespread protests against the contentious legislation.

The focal point of the legal confrontation is the initial phase of Netanyahu’s comprehensive judicial reform proposal, aiming to pass through parliament – a law that seeks to restrict the court’s capacity to nullify government decisions it deems “unreasonable.”

Beyond the intricate legal debates surrounding this law and the justices scrutinizing their own powers, looms the question of whether Netanyahu’s administration will respect a court ruling, if and when it arrives, that strikes down the law. Such a scenario could push Israel into an unparalleled judicial and political crisis.

Netanyahu, renowned for asserting his complete control over the government, faces a critical juncture in the coming weeks. Amit Segal, Chief Political Correspondent for Israel’s Channel 12, remarked, “If Netanyahu wants to survive as prime minister, he must have his hands on the steering wheel, otherwise he will fall apart.”

This high-stakes showdown presents a credible nuclear threat from both sides, provided they act rationally, but the current crisis seems increasingly irrational.

Netanyahu’s proposals to weaken the courts have deeply divided Israeli society, with critics decrying them as a threat to the nation’s democracy. Tens of thousands of Israelis rallied outside the Supreme Court on Monday, marking the 36th week of protests against the overhaul, showing their support for the justices ahead of this pivotal hearing. Some demonstrators later marched to the Prime Minister’s official residence in Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court’s focus is on appeals against the so-called “reasonableness law,” the initial aspect of the judicial overhaul passed in July by Netanyahu’s government, despite months of street protests, warnings from the Biden administration, and an opposition boycott of the final vote.

This measure, which amended one of Israel’s Basic Laws, went into effect just two days after its passage, effectively stripping the Supreme Court of its authority to overturn government decisions it deems unreasonable.

Unlike many nations with written constitutions, Israel relies on 13 Basic Laws and court precedents, making the Supreme Court the sole check on the executive and legislative branches. Nullifying a Basic Law would be uncharted territory for the court, although it has assessed and commented on Basic Laws in the past.

In 2021, the court set strict criteria for annulling a Basic Law, including if it threatens democratic principles, free and fair elections, core human rights, the separation of powers, the rule of law, or an independent judiciary.

This standard came into play when Netanyahu dismissed key ally Aryeh Deri from ministerial posts, in line with a Supreme Court ruling that found his appointments unreasonable due to criminal convictions and his stated intention to retire from public life.

In an unprecedented move, all 15 judges on the court will convene to hear the challenge to the controversial law, expected to last only a few days. The court must deliver its ruling by January 12, 2024, due to an impending retirement among its judges.

Prime Minister Netanyahu, in a July interview with CNN, declined to commit to obeying a potential Supreme Court decision to strike down the law, asserting that it was necessary to rein in an activist judiciary not accountable to the people’s will.

These anti-judicial overhaul demonstrations represent the longest and largest protest movement in Israeli history, ignited when Netanyahu assumed power late last year, leading an unprecedented right-wing and religious coalition. While judicial reform was barely a topic during his election campaign, it rapidly became the central issue following Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s announcement of sweeping plans.

The original proposals aimed to reshape the selection of Supreme Court justices, limit their powers, curtail government legal advisers’ authority, and grant parliament the ability to overturn Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority.

Netanyahu’s coalition argued these changes would restore balance to the branches of government, while critics viewed them as a power grab for ultra-Orthodox and settler movements and an attempt to aid Netanyahu in his ongoing corruption case, which he vehemently denies.

Although some aspects of the reforms have been altered since their initial introduction, the demonstrations have grown and evolved into a broader protest movement against the government. Far-right ministers within the government, such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, have made controversial statements about Israeli society and Palestinians, raising concerns among international allies.

Many Israelis, both proponents and opponents of the judicial changes, believe that Israel is at risk of tearing itself apart. The judicial overhaul is just one facet of the broader divide between secular and religious, settler and non-settler factions within the nation.

The impact of the judicial overhaul and the government’s actions has rippled across Israel, affecting its military, economy, and international relations. Thousands of military reservists, and even some active-duty soldiers, have pledged not to serve if the judicial overhaul is implemented. Banks and credit rating agencies have voiced concerns about the stability of Israel’s business environment due to these reforms.

The country’s high-tech community has unanimously expressed deep apprehension, and Israel’s security establishment, including former military generals, chiefs of staff, Ministers of Defense, and intelligence agency heads, have warned that such changes would weaken the nation’s security.

Haim Tomer, former Mossad chief of intelligence and international liaison, noted that Israel’s security is suffering as a result of diminishing solidarity and shared values among its armed forces. Regional adversaries like Iran and its allies see an opportunity in Israel’s internal turmoil, viewing it as a sign of weakness.

International allies, particularly the United States, have expressed profound concerns about the overhaul, with President Joe Biden urging Netanyahu to only pursue these changes through a broad compromise with opposition parties. Notably, a meeting between Netanyahu and Biden, long speculated, has not taken place due to the legislation, a rare occurrence for two nations claiming strong ties.

Tomer further emphasized that regional allies, including the United Arab Emirates, have also voiced their worries, highlighting the need for unity to maintain and strengthen relationships in the region.

Reports in Israeli media suggest that Netanyahu may consider endorsing President Isaac Herzog’s compromise plan on judicial reform. However, until credible legislation regarding the law under consideration this week is on the table or passed, the hearings will continue.

Tomer believes that if the court strikes down the legislation, Israel’s security leadership may face significant dilemmas regarding whom to obey – government ministers seeking to restrict demonstrations or the Supreme Court upholding the right to protest.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly in the coming week. As the invitation from President Biden remains unfulfilled, Netanyahu’s aspirations for a potential peace agreement with Saudi Arabia may hinge on navigating the demands of his coalition partners, some of whom may resist concessions to the Palestinians, a critical step in such negotiations.

Segal concludes, “So what I really think is that unless Netanyahu wakes up and tells his partners that they must go to the direction that he wants to, his government is in danger of falling apart.” The future of Israel’s government hangs in the balance as the judicial showdown unfolds.

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