JERUSALEM — Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday was hearing a challenge to a law that makes it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, which critics say is designed to protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has been working to reshape the justice system while he is on trial for alleged corruption.
The hearing is part of several pivotal court challenges against a proposed package of legislation and government steps meant to alter the country’s justice system. It comes as Israel has been plunged into months of turmoil over the plan and deepens a rift between Netanyahu’s government and the judiciary, which it wants to weaken despite unprecedented opposition.
The hearing is the second by the High Court on the law but was being heard Thursday by an expanded 11-judge panel, underscoring the importance of the deliberations.
Netanyahu’s governing coalition — Israel’s most religious and nationalist ever — passed the “incapacitation law” in March which allows a prime minister to be deemed unfit to rule only for medical or mental reasons. It also gives only the prime minister or his government the power to determine a leader’s unfitness.
The previous law was vague about both the circumstances surrounding a prime minister being deemed unfit as well as who had the authority to declare it, leaving open the possibility that the attorney general could take the step against Netanyahu over claims that he violated a conflict of interest agreement.
Critics say the law protects Netanyahu from being deemed unfit for office because of his ongoing corruption trial and claims of a conflict of interest over his involvement in the legal overhaul. They also say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu and encourages corruption.
Based on those criticisms, Thursday’s hearing is focusing on whether the law should come into effect after the next national elections and not immediately so that it isn’t interpreted as a personalized law. A ruling is expected by January.
Dozens of protesters opposed to the overhaul gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem ahead of the hearing, while Netanyahu’s allies defended the law. Simcha Rothman, a main driver of the overhaul, told Israeli Army Radio that the court’s decision to hear the case over the fate of a sitting prime minister was harmful to Israeli democracy and challenging the law was akin to throwing out the results of a legitimate election.
“The moment the court determines the laws then it is also the legislative branch, the judiciary and the executive branch,” he said. “This is an undemocratic reality.”
The government wants to weaken the Supreme Court and limit judicial oversight on its decisions, saying it wants to return power to elected lawmakers and away from what it sees as a liberal-leaning, interventionist justice system. The first major piece of the overhaul was passed in July and an unprecedented 15-judge panel began hearing arguments against it earlier this month.
The drive to reshape Israel’s justice system comes as Netanyahu’s trial for alleged corruption is ongoing. Netanyahu is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases involving influential media moguls and wealthy associates. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing, seeing the charges as part of a “witch-hunt” against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased justice system.
Experts and legal officials say a conflict of interest arrangement struck after Netanyahu was indicted is meant to limit his involvement in judicial changes. After the incapacitation law was passed, Netanyahu said his hands were no longer tied and that he was taking a more active role in the legal changes underway. That sparked a rebuke from Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who said Netanyahu’s remarks and any further actions were “completely illegal and in conflict of interest.”
Critics say Netanyahu and his government are working to upend the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and setting Israel on a path toward autocracy. The overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises, deepening longstanding societal divisions between those who want Israel to be a Western-facing liberal democracy and those who want to emphasize the country’s more conservative Jewish character.
Netanyahu has moved forward with the overhaul despite a wave of opposition from a broad swath of Israeli society. Top legal officials, leading economists and the country’s booming tech sector have all spoken out against the judicial changes, which have sparked opposition from hundreds of military reservists, who have said they will not serve so long as the overhaul remains on the table. Tens of thousands of people have protested every Saturday for the last nine months.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.