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

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

Israel’s Supreme Court heard the first challenge on Tuesday 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.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of ultranationalist and ultra religious lawmakers, unveiled the overhaul earlier this year, saying it was necessary to rein in an unelected judiciary they believe wields too much power.

Critics say the plan — which would weaken the Supreme Court — is a profound threat to Israeli democracy and that it would concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies.

They say the court is a key counterweight on majority rule in a country with an otherwise weak system of checks and balances — with just one house of parliament where the governing coalition is headed by the prime minister. The country’s president has largely ceremonial powers, and there is no firm, written constitution.

The case that opened 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.

The case is at the heart of a wider contest in Israel between fundamentally different interpretations of democracy.

Israeli’s protest against Netanyahu’s judicial reform law. Jerusalem, September 12th 2023Ohad Zwigenberg/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

Netanyahu and his coalition say that as elected representatives, they have a democratic mandate to govern without being hobbled by the court, which they portray as a bastion of the left-leaning elite.

Opponents say that if the court’s power to review and overturn some government decisions is removed, Netanyahu’s government could appoint convicted cronies to Cabinet posts, roll back rights for women and minorities, and annex the occupied West Bank.

A ruling is not expected for weeks or even months, but the session Tuesday could hint at the court’s direction. The marathon hearing was largely businesslike, though at times the arguments became tense and heated.

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