Protests against Israel's judicial overhaul kick off at Supreme Court

Protests against Israel's judicial overhaul kick off at Supreme Court a day before crucial hearingUNB/AP

Thousands of Israeli protesters flooded the streets outside Israel's Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Monday, a day before it hears a pivotal case against the curbing of the high court's powers by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right government. 

Beating drums, waving blue-and-white Israeli flags and brandishing signs that said “Freedom” and “Hands off our Supreme Court!," thousands of protesters from cities nationwide swarmed the main intersection outside the high court in a mass rally against the government's deeply contentious judicial overhaul that has triggered one of the biggest domestic crises in Israeli history. 

On Tuesday, all 15 of Israel’s Supreme Court justices will appear on the bench for the first time ever to hear appeals by rights groups and individuals against the first major part of the overhaul, which the the government pushed through parliament in July. The divisive law cancels the court’s ability to block government actions and appointments using the legal concept that they are “unreasonable.” 

Mulitple hearings at the Supreme Court in the coming weeks put the country’s top justices in the unprecedented position of defending their own independence and ruling on their own fate. 

The court faces massive public pressure to strike down the law and has an inherent interest in preserving its powers and independence. But if it does, Netanyahu’s government could ignore the ruling, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis over who has ultimate authority. 

Already senior Israeli officials have hinted they won’t respect the ruling if the court rules against the law — what is known as a “Basic Law” in Israel, or a major piece of legislation that serves as a sort of constitution, which Israel does not have. The court has never struck down that type of legislation before. 

On Monday, hardline National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir released a video declaring himself “against surrender.” 

“The reform is important for the state of Israel,” he said, rejecting compromise talks reportedly underway in the president’s house between Netanyahu and opposition party leader Benny Gantz. “Caving (to the opposition) at the president’s house means violating right-wing values.” 

Earlier Monday in the central Israeli town of Modiin, hundreds of rowdy protesters, blowing horns and chanting through megaphones, thronged the home of Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the overhaul. Israeli police said they arrested six people on charges of disrupting public order and blocking roads. After a few hours, Levin left his besieged home in a sleek black car surrounded by police officers and security guards who tried to clear a path for him through the swarm of protesters. 

Supporters of Netanyahu’s far-right, ultra-Orthodox government say the law will prevent liberal, unelected judges from interfering with the decisions of elected lawmakers. They also say the court should not be able to rule on a law limiting its own authority. 

Critics of the overhaul describe it as a blow to democracy, arguing that Israel’s judiciary represents the primary check on the powers of the prime minister and his majority coalition in parliament. They also say the prime minister has a conflict of interest trying to change the legal system at a time when he is on trial for corruption charges.