Israeli Supreme Court Contends Over Netanyahu’s Controversial Judicial Reform

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The highest court in Israel, the Supreme Court, on Tuesday deliberated over the first leg of opposition to the controversial judicial reform advocated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This dispute deepens the clash with a far-right government and intensifies the division within the nation, pushing it to the verge of a constitutional crisis.

Earlier this year, Netanyahu’s coalition, comprising ultranationalist and ultra-religious lawmakers, introduced the reforms claiming it was crucial to control an overreaching judiciary they believe is wielding excessive power.

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Detractors argue that the proposal, which intends to diminish the Supreme Court’s power, poses a severe threat to Israeli democracy. They contend that control will be consolidated in the hands of Netanyahu and his colleagues. They maintain that the court operates as a critical counterbalance against majority rule within a country that already has a relatively weak system of checks and balances – with a single house of parliament led by the prime minister, a large symbolic presidency, and an absence of a robust written constitution.

The case launched on Tuesday focuses on the first law enacted by parliament in July- legislation that abrogates the court’s ability to roll back government measures considered “unreasonable”. In rare instances, judges have utilized this legal standard to deter government decisions or appointments perceived as faulty or corrupt.

This ordeal places the Supreme Court of Israel in the unprecedented position of deliberating over whether to accept restrictions on its own powers. All 15 justices are presiding over the appeal collectively, an occurrence unprecedented in the nation’s history, instead of the usual smaller panels. The proceedings were also livestreamed and broadcast on the primary mainstream TV stations.

Even though a verdict is not expected for weeks or possibly even months, the session held on Tuesday could provide an indication of the court’s leanings. The prolonged hearing was generally businesslike, but the dialogues occasionally developed into tense and heated exchanges.

Netanyahu has refrained from commenting on whether he would accept a court verdict to revoke the new law, and some of his coalition members have suggested that the government could disregard the court’s judgment. Legal authorities caution that this could ignite a constitutional crisis, leaving citizens and the nation’s security forces torn between adhering to the commands of either the parliament or the court.

The proposition has sparked fury across diverse swathes of Israeli society, with hundreds of thousands engaging in recurring mass demonstrations over the past 36 weeks. Nonetheless, the plan has also unveiled a tremendous chasm within Israel. Critics of the plan largely comprise the nation’s secular middle class. Netanyahu’s proponents are typically less affluent, more religious, and dwell in either West Bank settlements or remote rural areas.

As the hearing began unfolding, a handful of right-wing activists staged a protest at the entrance to the Supreme Court, while anti-government protesters opposing the judicial reform amassed near the court the previous night.

The law being scrutinized was enacted as an amendment to what in Israel is known as a “Basic Law”, an exceptional piece of legislation that serves as a de-facto constitution. The ongoing legal clash reflects a broader contention within Israel between fundamentally different democratic interpretations.

Netanyahu and his coalition argue that they have a democratic mandate as elected representatives to govern unhindered by the court, which they depict as a stronghold of the left-leaning elite. Contrarily, critics contend that if the court’s power to review and overturn some government decisions is forfeited, Netanyahu’s government could appoint guilty confidants to cabinet positions, erode rights for women and minorities, and commandeer the occupied West Bank.