Israel’s Supreme Court Weighs Law That Limits Its Own Power

Israel’s Supreme Court will convene on Tuesday to begin considering whether to strike down a deeply contentious law that limits the court’s own power, in a hearing that sets the stage for a constitutional showdown between the country’s judicial and executive branches of power.

The high court will consider a bill passed by Parliament in July that ruled that judges could no longer overrule ministerial decisions using the legal standard of “reasonableness.”

The justices could take months to reach a decision, and Israelis from all political backgrounds say the country’s future and character partly depends on the hearing’s result.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the most nationalist and religious conservative in Israel’s history — sees the court as an obstacle to its vision of a more conservative, nationalist society. The court has historically acted as a check on religious influence on public life, some Israeli activity in the occupied West Bank, and decisions that favor Jews over Arabs.

The opposition considers the court a guarantor of Israel’s secular character, a protector of its minorities, and a bulwark against authoritarianism.

With the legislation passed in July, the government sought to bar the court from using the “reasonableness” standard on the grounds that it was too flexible, and had in the past given the court too much room to get involved in government decisions. The coalition said that the court still had several other tools with which it can restrain government influence.

The court will hear arguments from eight petitioners against the law, most of them civil society organizations that campaign for good governance.

The law’s opponents argue that the legislation undermines Israeli democracy by limiting the power of the Supreme Court, which is the main check on government overreach. Israel has no written constitution and no second chamber of Parliament, increasing the court’s importance as a counterweight to the power of the cabinet and the legislature.

The law is one part of a wider legislative package, the rest of which the government has so far failed to implement. The government still hopes to pass another law that gives it greater control over who gets to be a judge. But Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out pursuing a third plan that would have allowed Parliament to overrule Supreme Court decisions.

The package has prompted what many see as the worst domestic crisis in Israeli history, one that has widened longstanding rifts between secular and religious Israelis, as well as Jews of European and Middle Eastern descent.

Opponents of the law have held 36 consecutive weeks of mass protests. The judicial overhaul has also prompted some investors to divest from Israel, led more than 1,000 reserve soldiers to suspend their volunteer duty for the Israeli military, and strained Israel’s relationship with the United States government.

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