Israel’s high court strikes down Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul law

JERUSALEM — Israel’s high court on Monday struck down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s polarizing law that sought to limit the court’s power over government decisions, putting the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis just three months after Israelis united behind the war effort in Gaza.

Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judiciary sparked nearly a year of widespread social unrest before the Israel-Gaza war. The unprecedented standoff drew international condemnation and extraordinary opposition from military and senior security officials.

Monday’s ruling comes at a sensitive moment for Netanyahu, who remains embroiled in a corruption trial and is facing calls for his resignation over his government’s failure to thwart the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, as well as its handling of the hostage crisis. The militant group killed about 1,200 Israelis and took about 240 hostage, according to Israeli officials.

Netanyahu’s Likud party was swift to condemn the court’s decision, calling it “in opposition to the nation’s desire for unity, especially in a time of war.” Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a key force behind the law, said the ruling threatened the unity needed “so our troops can succeed at the front.” He pledged to pass the entire overhaul package after the war ends.

Opponents of the overhaul welcomed the ruling but refrained from public celebrations.

“Today the Supreme Court faithfully fulfilled its role in protecting the citizens of Israel,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said on X, formerly Twitter.

The news came a day after Israel said it would be withdrawing some troops from the Gaza Strip this week, an indication that it may be changing its tactics on the ground even as it rebuffs calls for a cease-fire.

Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Sunday night that pulling back reservists “will significantly ease the burden on the economy and allow them to gather strength for the upcoming activities in the next year.”

Some critics of the judicial overhaul plan, which Netanyahu’s coalition introduced as a series of bills last January, said Israel’s domestic divides weakened its ability to respond to regional threats.

Monday’s ruling concerned one part of the package, an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law — which serves in place of a constitution — that was pushed through and passed by Netanyahu’s far-right government in July. The altered law removed the right of the Israeli Supreme Court to block decisions made by government ministers that the judges deem “unreasonable.”

In striking down the law 8 to 7 on Monday, the top court’s ruling calls for the legislation to be removed. If Netanyahu’s government refuses to honor the ruling, the wartime country could face a constitutional crisis.

Netanyahu has not said whether he would abide by the decision.

Supporters of the legislation said it was a necessary corrective to an activist Supreme Court led by a clique of elite judges. Opponents said the law could lead to authoritarianism and pave the way for Netanyahu’s far-right and ultra-Orthodox backers to alter key foundations of Israel’s liberal democracy. In Israel’s parliamentary system, the high court is seen as the main check on lawmakers and the government.

Netanyahu returned to office in 2022 via a coalition of far-right lawmakers who say Israel should be a Jewish state over a democratic one. Among their key priorities is preventing a Palestinian state and annexing the occupied West Bank and other Palestinian land.

In exchange for support of the judicial overhaul, members of the prime minister’s coalition have supported Netanyahu’s bid for parliamentary immunity.

Weekly protests beginning in January 2023 against the proposal drew hundreds of thousands of people. Military pilots and soldiers threatened to boycott volunteer duty if the overhaul plan was not stopped.

In March, Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, who warned of potential security problems if Israeli reservists walked out. Gallant was reinstated two weeks later.

President Biden, one of Israel’s staunchest allies, in March also came out against the law in a rare public disagreement. “I hope he walks away from it,” Biden said, adding that Netanyahu’s government “cannot continue down this road.”

But the legislation was swiftly overshadowed after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, and the country quickly united. Israel’s more than 300,000 reservists mobilized for war. Anti-government protesters called off demonstrations. Lapid and opposition figure Benny Gantz proposed a broad emergency government that the parliament passed days later.

The resulting war on Gaza has killed nearly 22,000 people and injured more than 56,700 other Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Netanyahu has vowed to eliminate Hamas from the Gaza Strip, which Israel blockaded in 2007 when the militant group seized power.

The war has wide support in Israel, where most Israelis serve in the military. Domestically, however, there is growing frustration over a lack of clarity by Netanyahu’s government over what happens to Gaza after the war ends.

Brothers in Arms, a group of reserve soldiers who had opposed the overhaul, said in a statement Monday that its members “stand behind the independence of the Supreme Court, respect its ruling, and call all to abstain from division and hatred.”

“After Oct. 7, Israel cannot return to the division and chasms between parts of the nation,” they said.

Mellen reported from Tel Aviv.

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