Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul

Israel’s Supreme Court began hearing the first case on Tuesday to examine the validity of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s divisive judicial reform, intensifying a conflict with the far-right administration that has vehemently polarized the country and brought it dangerously close to a constitutional crisis.

The fact that all 15 of Israel’s Supreme Court justices are considering law appeals concurrently is a sign of the case’s importance. Three justices make comprise a standard panel, though they may serve on larger panels as well. Live streaming of the proceedings was also available.

Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu's contentious judicial overhaul
Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu’s contentious judicial overhaul

“It’s a historic day,” declared Susie Navot, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a think organization in Jerusalem that has opposed the reform. This type of hearing has never been held before.

Immediately after gaining government, Netanyahu’s coalition of ultranationalist and ultrareligious parliamentarians started the change. The Supreme Court is the head of the nation’s unelected judiciary, which supporters of the proposal claim holds excessive power. As a result, power would allegedly be concentrated in the hands of Netanyahu and his cronies, according to critics of the plan to undermine the Supreme Court.

Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which submitted a petition together with a few other civil society organizations, declared that “we stand here today with millions of citizens to stop the government’s coup.” “We will protect Israeli democracy together.”

The country’s senior justices will be forced to make the unprecedented decision to accept constraints on their own authority at the hearing on Tuesday. It focuses on the first bill that was approved by the legislature in July, which abolishes the court’s right to overturn rulings it believes to be “unreasonable.” Judges have previously utilized the legal criteria to stop government judgments that were thought to be corrupt or of low quality.

Israelis from all walks of life are outraged by the judicial reform, which opponents claim poses a grave threat to Israeli democracy. For the past 36 weeks, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest marches.

Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu's contentious judicial overhaul

The country’s secular middle class has provided the majority of the demonstrators. Leading individuals in the high-tech industry have threatened to move. Perhaps most dramatically, thousands of military reservists have stated their unwillingness to report for service in protest of the proposal, siding with the opposition to the administration.

The majority of Netanyahu’s supporters are less educated, more devout, and hail from remote or West Bank settlements. A large portion of his supporters are Mizrahi Jews of the working class, many of whom have roots in Middle Eastern nations. They have expressed enmity toward what they perceive to be an elite, secular class of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews.

Tens of thousands of Israeli protestors gathered outside the Supreme Court late on Monday, chanting anti-government slogans while waving flags of their own country.

Israel does not have a constitution, thus the bill was passed as an addition to what is known as the “Basic Law,” a special piece of legislation. A “Basic Law” has never been overturned by the court, but it claims it has the authority to do so. Government officials claim it doesn’t.

Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement prior to the hearing on Tuesday that the court “lacks all authority” to evaluate the law.

“It is a fatal blow to democracy and the status of the Knesset,” he insisted, arguing that the legislation should be decided by the elected representatives of the people.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, a key focus of the coalition’s attacks, has declined to defend the judicial reform in court, even though she would ordinarily represent the government in such a hearing. The law’s authors then sought the advice of outside lawyers.

Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu's contentious judicial overhaul

On Tuesday, a decision is not anticipated, but the hearing may provide some insight into the court’s thinking.

The case is the focal point of a larger conflict between fundamentally divergent views of democracy in Israel. As elected officials, Netanyahu and his coalition claim they have the democratic right to rule without interference from the court, which they characterize as a stronghold of the left-leaning elite.

In a nation with a meager system of checks and balances that includes just one house of parliament, a ceremonial president, and no formal, written constitution, critics assert that the court is the only check on majority power. They assert that without the ability to review and reverse some executive actions, Netanyahu’s administration could appoint convicted friends to Cabinet positions, restrict the rights of women and minorities, and annex the occupied West Bank—laws that the court would probably challenge under its current authority.

Democracy no longer ends in a single day, according to Navot of the Israel Democracy Institute. “Democracies fade away gradually, piece by piece, legislation by law. We should therefore use extreme caution when undertaking this kind of judicial reform.

Israeli Supreme Court hears first challenge to Netanyahu's contentious judicial overhaul

The hard-line, religiously conservative coalition partners who have threatened to resign if Netanyahu blocks the legislation are crucial to his political survival. Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year while facing a corruption investigation, depends on them.

Netanyahu has declined to make it clear if he would recognize a court’s judgment to overturn the new law. Levin and other coalition members have made suggestions that the administration would disregard the court’s ruling.

Legal professionals caution that this might lead to a constitutional crisis when citizens and the nation’s security forces are forced to choose between the parliament’s and the court’s directives, taking the nation into unknown terrain.

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