Israel’s Supreme Court ruling on Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

On Monday, Israel’s Supreme Court made an unprecedented decision by striking down a government plan aimed at limiting the powers of the judiciary. In a close vote of eight to seven, the court rejected a government amendment to the reasonableness law, which sought to strip the Supreme Court of its authority to declare government decisions as unreasonable. This amendment was a significant part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s broader initiative to weaken the judiciary, which was passed by the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) last year.

Netanyahu’s attempt to overhaul the judiciary had sparked months of intense protests in Israel, with citizens accusing his government of undermining the country’s democracy. The Supreme Court’s ruling, coming amidst the ongoing conflict with Hamas in Gaza, has the potential to cause divisions within Israel’s war cabinet, which includes Netanyahu and two prominent critics of his efforts to reform the court.

The court’s decision marks a critical development in the ongoing political and judicial landscape in Israel, and its implications may reverberate across various facets of the country’s governance.

In July, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, approved the reasonableness law, which removed the Supreme Court’s authority to declare government decisions as unreasonable. This standard is widely employed by courts in Israel to assess the constitutionality and lawfulness of legislation, ensuring that decisions made by public officials align with the criterion of being “reasonable.”

The reasonableness doctrine is not exclusive to Israel’s judiciary; it is a principle utilized in various countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Earlier this year, the reasonableness standard played a crucial role when Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed his key ally, Aryeh Deri, from all ministerial posts. This action was in compliance with an Israeli High Court ruling that deemed it unreasonable to appoint Deri to government positions due to his criminal convictions. Additionally, the court considered his statement in the previous year, where he declared his intention to retire from public life.

A person gestures as protesters block Ayalon Highway during a demonstration following a parliament vote on a contested bill that limits Supreme Court powers to void some government decisions, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 25, 2023. REUTERS/Corinna Kern

Netanyahu conveyed to Deri that he had followed the ruling “with a heavy heart and great sorrow.”

The reasonableness bill constituted one element within a comprehensive set of reforms targeting Israel’s judicial system. Other components of this package sought to grant the hard-right coalition government increased influence over the appointment of judges and proposed the elimination of independent legal advisors from government ministries.

The court ruled that a government amendment to the reasonableness law should not stand. The court said it rejected the amendment because it would deal a “severe and unprecedented blow to the core characteristics of the State of Israel as a democratic state.”

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