Analysis: Israel’s Supreme Court battle takes a pause but is far from over

Court agrees to hear an appeal against law limiting its powers passed this week, but hearing won’t be until September.

Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Head of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee Simcha Rothman speak as lawmakers gather at the Knesset plenum to vote on a bill that would limit some Supreme Court power
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, right, and the head of the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Simcha Rothman, speak as lawmakers vote on July 24, 2023, in the Knesset on a bill that would limit some Supreme Court powers [Amir Cohen/Reuters]

After months of protests and a dramatic day in West Jerusalem as the Israeli government pushed through its bill to weaken the power of the Supreme Court, all sides appear to be taking a break to coalesce and strategise for what comes next.

The Supreme Court did rule on Wednesday, two days after the legislation passed the Knesset, that it would hear an appeal against the new law – but the court date has been set for September.

And so, in the immediate aftermath of one of Israel’s most bitter domestic disputes, few answers can be given regarding the future of what the opposition has called a “domestic coup” led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Supreme Court’s eventual decision in September may “lead to a constitutional crisis”, explained Allison Kaplan Sommer, a journalist covering politics for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Different [Israeli legal] experts say that the high court is [both] likely or unlikely to strike it down,” Sommer said. It may also limit the scope of the new clause or leave it untouched.

A chief difficulty of predicting the government and its opponents’ next steps is the relatively weak leadership on all sides and a lack of a clear strategy for the future.

Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, pointed out that there have been mixed messages coming from the hard-right government coalition’s most senior leaders.

“Netanyahu said to Biden in English, ‘I’m not going to [pass further judicial reforms without a broad consensus],’ but in Hebrew, the partners he depends on [for his coalition to stay together] said they will take it forward,” Stern said, referring to comments made by far-right coalition members promising to pass further laws that would put more power in the hands of the prime minister and Knesset and away from the Supreme Court.

Moments before the final vote on Monday on what has been called the “reasonableness clause” bill, the instability of Netanyahu’s coalition was on full display as he sat silently between his defence and justice ministers as they debated in full view of the cameras – one calling for him to compromise and the other for him to push forward.

Yonatan Freeman, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University, views the unwillingness of members of Netanyahu’s coalition to compromise as a sign that “they are maybe expecting an election soon” and are, therefore, appealing to their more polarised political bases as opposed to a broader swathe of the Israeli public.

According to Stern, “78 percent of the population says we do not want any change without wide agreement now, so I don’t know if the coalition – 64 Knesset members – will listen to the vast majority of Israelis and will stop moving forward.”

The right-wing wish list

At the top of the wish list of Netanyahu’s coalition when the Knesset comes back from its summer recess in October are bills that would allow the government to appoint judges and reject Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority.

“They want control over who becomes a judge and who becomes chief justice in Israel,” Sommer said. “[They want] to overrule the legislature – to say that the Knesset with a simple majority can reverse any Supreme Court decision, which in essence takes all power away from the court.”

As for the legislation that has already passed, one key impact is that the ruling coalition may now appoint or fire government appointees without the court striking down such decisions as “unreasonable”. The Supreme Court did such a thing in January when it ruled that key Netanyahu ally Aryeh Deri could not be appointed to the cabinet due to previous convictions.

Netanyahu himself could benefit – he has been on trial since 2020, charged with committing fraud and accepting bribes, accusations he denies.

“There have been open calls from right-wing ministers for firing the attorney general,” Sommer said, adding that could lead to the appointment of a new attorney general who drops the charges against Netanyahu.

Protesters’ response

For the tens of thousands of Israelis who have taken to the streets against the legislation, the next steps are uncertain.

According to Yiftach Golov, a leader of the influential protest group Brothers in Arms, led by former soldiers and reservists, the situation is “chaotic”.

More than 10,000 soldiers have already signed public letters saying they will boycott reserve duty.

In spite of the protest movement’s grassroots nature, best exemplified by the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who protested spontaneously after the firing of Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in March – which Netanyahu later reversed – Golov said there is a secret “strategic plan” that has been made with “other major groups of the protest movement”.

“[After Gallant’s firing,] we wrote down a very prolonged strategic plan,” Golov said. “Without going into details, … wait for new surprises [and] new activities in our armoury.”

This, Golov said, is part of a “war to defend democracy” and save Israel from becoming “fascist”.

It is unclear how much longer Israelis will tolerate the current level of government infighting and dysfunction.

A poll by the Israeli TV Channel 13 on Wednesday found that more than half of Israelis polled fear a civil war while 28 percent are considering leaving the country in light of the judicial overhauls.

Source: Al Jazeera