Israel’s Supreme Court has heard a petition against an amendment to a Basic Law that was passed in March by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his religious-nationalist coalition government.
The hearing was held as protests continue against Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his government’s push to overhaul the judiciary.
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The amendment that was the subject of Thursday’s hearing limits the reasons for removing a prime minister from office to physical or mental incapacitation, which benefits Netanyahu, who could have been removed from office for conflict of interest due to his pursuit of judicial changes while he is on trial.
The petitioner, Movement for Quality Government in Israel, argues that this “constituted another transition toward dictatorship” and “set a dangerous new precedent [whereby] the person possessing the premiership can change constitutional arrangements as convenient given the majority he has to hand”.
The five-hour hearing concluded without a verdict from the Supreme Court, and with the time frame for a conclusion to the case uncertain.
However, the Supreme Court President, Esther Hayut, did say that it was “clear” that the law passed in March was designed to benefit Netanyahu, the Times of Israel reported.
“[Likud] MP Moshe Saada said two days before the law was passed in its second and third readings ‘we legislated it because of Netanyahu’. You can’t get clearer than that,” Hayut said.
Supporters of Netanyahu, who won a record sixth term in December, say the petition is an example of what they call “meddling by unelected judges” in the work of a democratically elected government.
“There’s a desire here to create a judicial dictatorship,” Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told public broadcaster Kan.
Critics say the Supreme Court is the last check on the government and is needed because Israel has only its Basic Laws, not a formal constitution.
The Supreme Court will hear an even bigger case on September 12. For the first time in Israeli history, the entire 15-justice bench will convene to hear an appeal against another amendment to a Basic Law – this one curbing the Supreme Court’s own powers.
The legislation, ratified on July 24, prevents the Supreme Court from vetoing government decisions on the grounds of being “unreasonable”.
Critics of that amendment worry that it will encourage high-level corruption.
The court has never quashed a Basic Law or an amendment to one. Netanyahu has voiced hope that it will not do so now and has been hazy on whether he would abide by any such ruling.
Netanyahu’s Likud party echoed its leader’s recent remarks in a July 31 statement: “Israeli governments have always respected the law and court rulings, and the court has always respected the basic laws.
“These two foundations form the basis of the rule of law in Israel and the balance between the authorities in any democracy. Any deviation from one of these principles will gravely harm Israeli democracy, which these days is in dire need of calm, dialogue and responsibility.”
Thousands of protesters waving Israeli flags rallied on Wednesday against the legislation the Knesset approved last month, the first bill in a judicial overhaul planned by Netanyahu’s coalition.
“You have ruined the country, and we will fix it. Democracy! Democracy!” chanted demonstrators in Tel Aviv, which has become the epicentre of anti-government demonstrations since the judicial overhaul was unveiled in January.
“I’m against the government. What it’s doing is moving all the power to one authority,” protester Roei Ben Haim, 40, told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
“Once they ruin the system, it becomes important to me to take to the streets to tell them it won’t pass.”
He said amending the “reasonableness” clause in itself was not important but because “it’s the first act the government wants to cancel”, people “must show the government we’re determined in the face of any action it takes”.