After months of massive protests that rocked much of Israeli society for the majority of the summer, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deeply controversial judicial reform effort was struck down this week by the very court whose authority it was meant to curtail. The 8-7 ruling against the Netanyahu-backed law that severely limited the court’s ability to consider legislation passed by the Israeli Knesset marks a decisive defeat for the prime minister and his allies who passed the bill in late July amid unprecedented civic and political opposition. It also comes as Israel nears its third month of war in Gaza, where more than 20,000 Palestinians — the majority believed to be civilians — have died from a combined aerial bombardment and ground offensive that has inflamed the region, and indeed much of the world as well.
In a statement released shortly after the ruling was announced, the Court described the now-annulled portion of the bill, known broadly as the “reasonableness law,” as having risked “severe and unprecedented damage to the basic characteristics of the State of Israel as a democratic state.” Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, one of the law’s chief architects, disagreed, blasting the court for “taking into their hands all the powers, which in a democratic regime are supposed to be divided in a balanced way” in a statement obtained by the Jerusalem Post. Levin also criticized the court for releasing their verdict while Israel continues fighting in Gaza, calling the timing the “opposite of the spirit of unity” expected during wartime.
The ruling could push Israel into a “constitutional and political crisis,” according to Axios, which envisioned a scenario in which a forceful response from Netanyahu and his allies could push former Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a centrist, to leave Netanyahu’s emergency unity government. This, in turn, would “leave Israel with a radical right-wing government to make decisions about the war” that could jeopardize American support.
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While Netanyahu and his allies may try again to push their overhaul of the judiciary, “in practice” the coup “died on Monday night, if it had not already died on October 7,” according to Haaretz columnist Gidi Weitz, who lamented that the seven dissenting justices “did not rise to the challenge” of a unanimous decision against Netanyahu’s effort, even if they “did not give it a stamp of kashrut either.”
Significant as striking down the reasonableness clause may be, the “more consequential part of the ruling” was a 12-3 decision that affirmed the High Court could in extraordinary circumstances review and revoke elements of the country’s Basic Laws, which operate similarly to a constitution, according to The New York Times. Weitz seemingly agreed, calling it the “truly dramatic significance” of Monday’s ruling, which acts as a “stop sign” for the right-wing Knesset, should it persist in its “campaign of destruction and attempts to undermine the foundations of democracy.”
What next? The Netanyahu government has worked to “downplay their loss” by “appealing again to wartime unity,” The New York Times reported. The timing of the ruling ultimately may help Netanyahu, because “he can justify a lack of reaction, and after the war he will have more pressing matters,” Israeli political columnist Amit Segal told the paper. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s allies have been quick to lob allegations that the court had violated some sense of wartime detente, with Science, Technology, and Innovation Minister Ofir Akunis calling it a “disgrace” and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, lamenting that “we cannot engage in this as long as the war is in progress.”
If the Netanyahu government’s leaders attempt to restart their judicial battle, then “they have learned nothing,” Yair Lapid, who heads the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, warned on X, formerly Twitter, adding that they “haven’t learned anything from October 7” either.
Netanyahu is facing intense criticism from Israelis for his handling of the ongoing war in Gaza, even as he has pledged to begin withdrawing troops from the region. A poll from the Israel Democracy Institute released on Tuesday shows just 15 percent of the country wants him to remain prime minister after the war concludes.
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