The Israeli Supreme Court convened Tuesday morning to hear petitions against a judicial reform amendment which would annul the country’s reasonableness standard. The reforms, introduced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, continue to fuel nationwide protests.
All 15 Israeli Supreme Court justices gathered to preside over the hearing. Usually, cases are heard by a panel of only three or nine justices. The panel of all 15 justices indicates just how important this hearing is to the future of the country.
At issue in all of the petitions is an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law: The Judiciary, which passed 64-0 votes in the Knesset—Israel’s legislature—in July. There were no votes cast in opposition to the amendment because the opposition left the chambers in protest. The amendment restricts the Supreme Court’s ability to use the “reasonableness standard” in cases assessing whether laws passed by the Knesset should stand. Israel’s Basic Law serves as a pseudo-constitution, though it does not formally hold more statutory power than any other legislation.
The hearings center around numerous petitions filed by individuals and groups, importantly, Israeli Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara and the Israeli Bar Association. The government is being defended by private attorney, Ilan Bombach, because Miara refused to represent the government. During the hearing, the government argued that because they were democratically elected, they have the right to do away with the reasonableness standard, which they assert gives the Supreme Court too much power. Numerous petitioners make the opposite claim, arguing that doing away with the standard would grant too much power to the government.
The proceedings lasted for more than eleven hours. The court holds the belief that their authority is derived from the Israeli Declaration of Independence
. The Declaration of Independence, signed in 1948, holds that Israel is a democratic and Jewish nation, and that the government cannot legislate laws that erode that commitment to democracy. Counsel for the government, Bombach, asserted that the declaration was signed by unelected individuals, which strips it of its authority—much to the disdain of the court. He also claimed that the amendment does not erode Israel’s commitment to democracy, and that the courts response is irrelevant.
Justice Itzhak Amit stated, “[D]emocracy does not die with a few strong hits, but dies in many small steps.” Tali Gotliv, a party member of Netanyahu’s ruling party Likud immediately yelled out in protest, “The Knesset sanctifies democracy! The Knesset preserves democracy!” President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut immediately reprimanded Gotliv by saying, “Madame Gotliv, who by the way is an attorney, knows very well that in the court we do not yell or make announcements from the audience, enough.”
During the proceedings, the Likud party tweeted
The most important element in democracy is that the people are the sovereign. The Knesset receives its authority from the people. The government receives its authority from the Knesset. The court derives its authority from the fundamental laws enacted by the Knesset. If the court can cancel fundamental laws, it makes itself sovereign instead of the people. This extreme step will undermine the foundation of democracy. This is a red line that must not be crossed.
The proceedings ended at just past 10:00 PM local time. It is not certain when the Supreme Court will announce their decision, though it is likely that the court will not make its decision until after the upcoming Jewish High Holidays. The court may or may not strike down the amendment that reins in its own powers, but it may not even be particularly relevant if they do so. Coalition member and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana gave a speech
in which he suggested that the coalition may not accept such a ruling. It was later re-tweeted by Netanyahu. Because it would be the first time such an issue has arisen in Israel, it is unclear what the fallout would be if the government rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling.