Israel’s Supreme Court justices have begun hearing petitions against a key part of the right-wing government’s judicial overhaul limiting the court’s powers, a development that could trigger an unprecedented constitutional crisis.
For the first time, a panel of 15 judges met Tuesday to discuss eight cases seeking to overturn the “reasonableness” clause, adopted by the Knesset in July, which abolished the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn government decisions.
The hearings put the nation’s top judges in the position of deciding their own role. The government has indicated it will not comply if the court strikes down the law, which would be the first time it has struck down a semi-constitutional “basic law.” Such a move would plunge Israel into uncharted political and legal waters; iconic president Isaac Herzog repeatedly warned against civil war.
Protesters gathered outside the Jerusalem court at the start of the hearing, banging drums, whistling, chanting and waving Israeli flags. By the hundreds, they were then joined by several dozen right-wing activists, who shouted “the people are the sovereign” and held up signs declaring that they had voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, not the chief justice. of the Supreme Court, Esther Hayut.
“We are already in a constitutional crisis: government ministers have made no secret of their intention to remove gatekeepers such as the attorney general and instead appoint people who will protect them,” said Noa Sattath, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Afghanistan. Israel, which filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court along with 37 other human rights organizations.
“The Supreme Court says it will only strike down a fundamental law in exceptional circumstances. Our argument to judges is that they must look at the whole situation, not just on a case-by-case basis. The sum total of these changes and the coalition laws will undermine our democratic structures.”
A decision could be made at any time in the next four months, but the hearing’s opening session was closely watched for early clues about the judges’ direction. It includes liberal and conservative judges.
Addressing the government’s legal representatives, Hayut said: “It is clear that you believe that the duty to act reasonably applies to the government and its ministers… But who ensures that they actually do it?”
At the urging of his new coalition partners, Netanyahu introduced a package of sweeping judicial changes upon his return to power in December. The legislation aims to limit the influence of the Supreme Court, which the Israeli right has long accused of being biased and too powerful for an unelected body.
The planned changes, including limiting the court’s ability to overturn laws and giving politicians more control over judicial appointments, have been denounced by critics as a transparent power grab that would erode democratic norms and help Netanyahu fight against accusations of corruption, which he denies.
The “reasonableness” clause was the first element of the judicial overhaul to pass, despite eight months of sustained opposition from the largest protest movement in Israel’s history.
The proposals have divided Israel along lines of religion, ethnicity and class, thrown the military into chaos, damaged the shekel and sparked public concern about the country’s democratic health. from key allies such as the United States.
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court is also set to hear petitions against two other bitterly contested pieces of legislation passed by Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing and religious parties that critics say are aimed at protecting the position of the prime minister and his allies. policies.
“The very debate over the possibility of repealing the Basic Laws, which constitute the top of the legal pyramid in Israel, and the possibility of declaring the Prime Minister incapacitated, constitutes a mortal damage to a government by the people,” Justice Minister Yariv said. Levin, the architect of the legal proposals, said Tuesday morning.
“The court, whose judges are elected behind closed doors and without protocol, has placed itself above the government, above the Knesset, above the people and above the law… …This situation is completely contrary to democracy. This means a court with no checks and balances at all.
Compromise talks between the government and opposition parties brokered by Herzog have repeatedly ended in deadlock, but ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Israeli media reported further attempts behind closed doors.
Netanyahu said Monday he aimed to “reach a national consensus to restore the balance of power” between the branches of government. He did not say whether he would respect the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law removing the “reasonableness” clause.