Top court hears first challenge to Netanyahu's divisive legal reforms

Supreme Court hears petitions for over 13 hours challenging measures by PM Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government to curb power of judges, a historic hearing in a crisis that has tormented Israel for months. (Photo/AFP)

Israel's Supreme Court has heard the first challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's contentious judicial overhaul, deepening a showdown with the far-right government that has bitterly divided the nation and put it on the brink of a constitutional crisis.

The case that opened on Tuesday focuses on the first law passed by parliament in July — a measure that cancels the court's ability to strike down government moves it deems to be "unreasonable."

Judges have used the legal standard in rare cases to prevent government decisions or appointments viewed as unsound or corrupt.

The hearing puts Israel's Supreme Court in the unprecedented position of deciding whether to accept limits on its own powers.

In a sign of the case's significance, all 15 justices are hearing the appeal together for the first time in the country's history, rather than the typical smaller panels.

The proceedings were also livestreamed and aired on the country's main TV stations.

A ruling is not expected for weeks or even months, but the session on Tuesday could hint at the court's direction.

The marathon hearing was largely businesslike, though at times, the arguments became tense and heated.

Back and forth heated debate

In one exchange, Simcha Rothman, a senior government lawmaker who has shepherded the overhaul through parliament, insisted the court could not be trusted to decide its own fate.

"Can you be the ones to judge this without fear, without prejudice, without bias? Because you are dealing with your own honour and status," Rothman told the chief justice.

"And you talk about the Knesset's conflict of interest?"

Esther Hayut chided him, responding that the court does not deal with its own status but rather "the essential interests of the public."

In another exchange, Justice Isaac Amit challenged a lawyer representing Netanyahu's coalition who said the new law doesn't endanger democracy.

"Democracy doesn't die from few strong blows. Democracy dies in series of small steps," said Amit, who is expected to succeed Hayut as chief justice after she retires later this year.

His comment elicited an outburst from a back row by Tally Gotliv, a lawmaker with Netanyahu's Likud Party, who shouted, "The Knesset sanctifies democracy."

Hayut swiftly reprimanded her.

Netanyahu has not said whether he would respect a decision by the court to strike down the new law.

Some members of his coalition have hinted that the government could ignore the court's decision.

Legal experts warn that could spark a constitutional crisis, where citizens and the country's security forces are left to decide whose orders to follow — the parliament's or the court's.

The political survival of Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year while standing trial on bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges, is also bound up with the overhaul.

His hardline and extremist coalition partners have threatened to rebel if he doesn't see the legislation through, and critics say Netanyahu could use the overhaul to get the charges against him dismissed.

Two sides apart

The plan has infuriated people across many segments of Israeli society.

Hundreds of thousands have poured into the streets in repeated mass protests for the past 36 weeks.

"We stand here today with millions of citizens to stop the government coup," said Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, one of the groups that asked the court to strike down the new law.

"Together, we will preserve Israeli democracy."

But it has also exposed an enormous gulf in Israel.

Opponents of the plan come largely from the country’s secular middle class.

Leading high-tech business figures have threatened to relocate.

Perhaps most dramatically, thousands of military reservists have broken with the government and declared their refusal to report for duty over the plan.

Netanyahu’s supporters tend to be poorer, more religious and live in West Bank settlements or outlying rural areas.

Many are working-class Mizrahi Jews, with roots in Middle Eastern countries, and have expressed hostility toward what they say is an elitist, secular class of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews.

As the hearing got underway, a couple dozen right-wing activists came out to protest at the entrance to the Supreme Court.

"The people are the sovereign!" they shouted through megaphones, blowing horns and holding signs declaring that they had voted for Netanyahu, not Justice Hayut.

The night before, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters rallying against the judicial overhaul flooded the streets near the court, waving national flags and chanting for democracy.

'Basic Law' red line

The law under review was passed as an amendment to what in Israel is known as a "Basic Law," a special piece of legislation that serves as a sort of constitution.

The court has never struck down a Basic Law before but says it has the right to do so.

The government says it does not, and that lawmakers elected by the people should have the final say over such legislation.

Netanyahu's Likud issued a statement late Tuesday saying that striking down a Basic Law "is a red line that cannot be crossed."

"If the court can annul a Basic Law, it makes itself sovereign instead of the people, an extreme act calling into question the whole principle of democracy," it added.


Source: TRT