Civil unrest, legal appeals and military disobedience: What Israel may face after Supreme Court law change

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is surrounded by lawmakers at a session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Israel on Monday.
CNN  — 

Israel’s parliament on Monday passed a controversial law stripping the Supreme Court of its power to declare government decisions unreasonable, the first bill in a wide-ranging judicial overhaul that analysts say is likely to deepen the crisis the country is facing.

The bill amended an Israeli Basic Law governing the judiciary by taking away the court’s power to veto government decisions under the legal doctrine of “reasonableness.” Millions opposed the change, according to opinion polls, which critics said would erode the independence of the courts and harm Israel’s democracy.

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the law despite months of protest and heavy pressure from Israel’s closest ally, the United States. The bill passed by a vote of 64-0. All members of the governing coalition voted in favor, while all opposition lawmakers walked out of the chamber in protest as the vote was taking place.

Like the British system of government, Israel doesn’t have a written constitution. Instead, it relies on 13 Basic Laws, as well as court ruling precedents that could one day become a constitution. That leaves the Supreme Court as the only check on the executive and legislative branches of government, a power that Monday’s vote has curtailed.

Experts expect the court to likely strike down the amendment, which could lead to a showdown between the government and the judiciary.

From escalated protests and possible military disobedience, to attempts by the court to rule the new law as invalid, coming days and weeks will test Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition’s readiness to defy public opinion.

Here’s what may happen next:

The court may impose a temporary block on the law

Several groups have appealed to the Supreme Court to strike down the law, and experts said the court is likely to take up the case.

If it does, the first step could be a temporary block on the law, which would prevent it from being implemented until the court assesses its legality.

Striking down a Basic Law would be uncharted territory for the Supreme Court, although the court has examined and commented on Basic Laws before.

In 2021, the court outlined very narrow circumstances under which a Basic Law can be annulled. A number of petitions were filed challenging the constitutionality of the Nation State Law. While the court did not strike down the law, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said that “there is one restriction, exceedingly narrow, which is incumbent on the Knesset in its function as the constituent authority, that it is unable to revoke Israel’s essence as a Jewish and democratic state through a Basic Law.”

The court could strike down a Basic Law if it endangers democratic principles such as those that deal “a mortal blow to free and fair elections, core human rights, the separation of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary,” Hayut said.

Barak Medina, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Law, said the court could potentially justify striking down the law through the principle of Israel’s core values of democracy.

“(It) is what is sometimes called an unconstitutional constitutional amendment,” Medina told CNN. “It says that the Knesset is limited in that it is required to respect the core values, the core aspects of democracy.”

The court could challenge the law using this doctrine, given the bill’s “substantial curtailment of the powers of the court,” he said.

While the court may attempt to challenge the law on these grounds, the process will be difficult due to the nature of Israel’s legal system.

“Israel is in a unique situation because we do not have special procedures for constitutional amendments,” Yohanan Plesner, President of the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, told CNN. “Because we don’t have a constitution, one of the things we missed…are special procedures for Basic Laws.”

Plesner notes that this makes Israel’s legal system “particularly vulnerable to constitutional abuse,” as with a simple majority one can make “far-reaching constitutional changes” or even declare an amendment constitutional when it is not.

This “extra flexibility,” he said, has traditionally created more room for “court intervention and court interpretation.”

Asked on Tuesday by CNN whether the Israeli government would abide by a Supreme Court ruling striking down the law, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer said: “The government will always obey and abide by the rule of law in Israel … Because we have in Israel the rule of law. What we don’t have is the rule of judges. We have the rule of law.”

exp israel constitutional crisis roznai intv | 072508ASEG2 | cnni world _00002001.png
Is Israel on the brink of a constitutional crisis?
04:17 - Source: CNN

Protests and strikes may escalate

The Supreme Court may be influenced by what’s happening on the streets of Israel, experts said, as protests and strikes are expected to escalate.

“Courts do not operate in isolation of what is going on in society,” Medina said. “The current situation in Israel – the fact that we are in an unprecedented crisis, internal crisis – is something that the court is well aware of.”

Thousands surrounded the parliament and Supreme Court building on Monday, and on Tuesday the Israel Medical Association said it would strike for 24 hours in response to the law, which the association chairman called “broad and dangerous.”

The law “will have serious consequences for the health system, patients and doctors,” the IMA said.

In the streets, protesters have pledged to continue the fight against the package of judicial reforms.

“We started a determined struggle seven months ago to save high tech and the Israeli economy. Yesterday was a dark day, the first step in damaging the status of the court, but it is important for us to say that we are not giving up, not on our country, not on the economy, and not on the amazing industry we have built here over the past 30 years,” read a statement from the High Tech protest group, which represents some leaders in the country’s tech and startup industry.

Unless the crisis is resolved, Plesner said, Israel will continue on a plateau that may have dangerous implications on the long run. Israel is not however expected to see additional votes on other overhaul bills until the Knesset reconvenes in October.

Netanyahu on Monday said that his government was “ready to discuss everything immediately, and do it in the round of talks during the recess and reach a comprehensive agreement on everything, and if necessary, we will add more time, until the end of November.”