Israel’s Supreme Court weighs new law limiting the court’s power
What’s behind the showdown between the legislature and the court?
The Israeli Air Force is trying to convince reservists to return to service after many didn’t show up for duty, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. On Sept. 12, Israel’s Supreme Court held the first hearings in a challenge to the raft of new measures passed by the current government to overhaul the nation’s judiciary. Israel’s parliament, called the Knesset, passed the rules in July. Israelis across the political spectrum have crowded the streets in protest against the measures since Justice Minister Yariv Levin introduced them in January. Some military reservists said they would not serve if the government enacted the measures. Protesters say their implementation would dramatically change the nature of Israel’s democracy.
What would the reforms do?
The new law would prohibit Israeli courts from using what is called the “reasonableness doctrine” to review decisions made by the Israeli cabinet and government ministers. The Supreme Court has used the reasonableness doctrine to strike down laws it considered unfair towards certain members of society. Particularly in recent decades, the court has struck down laws permitting Jewish settlements in disputed parts of the West Bank.
What are the protesters upset about?
The protest movement says that the government’s judicial overhaul is a tool to change the nature of Israeli democracy. If the power of the courts to strike down laws as unreasonable is removed, protesters say the religiously motivated government coalition could move ahead with plans to make Israel an increasingly religious state. That, they say, would remove any brakes on the Jewish settler movement as well as put in jeopardy the protection of Arab Israelis’ rights.
Why is this so complicated?
Israel has no written constitution. Instead, it has 13 quasi-constitutional Basic Laws drafted in line with its Declaration of Independence of May 14, 1948, and approved by the Knesset over the years since. The Declaration of Independence originally called for a written constitution to be formulated and adopted, but that was consistently postponed. This means, in effect, that with only one parliamentary body of which the prime minister is the leader, the Supreme Court is the only check on government overreach.
What could go wrong?
The Knesset passed legislation restricting the power of the Supreme Court to overturn laws. The Supreme Court is currently considering whether or not that legislation is “reasonable.” If the court rules to overturn the law, it is unknown to whom the security forces and military would be loyal. Commentators have mistakenly called this a “constitutional crisis.” This is a misnomer, since there is no constitution, but it does put the balance of power and peace in Israel in jeopardy. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has repeatedly warned of risks to national preparedness as thousands of reservists in the Israel Defense Forces refuse to serve in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul.
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