There is an effort within the Knesset to curb the powers of the state’s Supreme Court, especially in its role as the High Court of Justice. It is a dangerous development for Israeli democracy. It is also extremely shortsighted.
Israel has no written constitution. Instead, the state is governed by a series of so-called “basic laws.” In the Supreme Court’s case, its powers are established by “Basic Law: The Judiciary.” That law establishes, among other things, that in its role as High Court of Justice, “it shall hear matters in which it deems it necessary to grant relief for the sake of justice and which are not within the jurisdiction of another court.”
According to the Basic Law, the court may order “the release of persons unlawfully detained or imprisoned”; decide the legality of government actions; order secular and religious courts “to hear, refrain from hearing, or continue hearing a particular matter, or to void a proceeding improperly taken or a decision improperly given”; and “quash a proceeding taken or a decision given by the religious court without authority.”
Over the years, the Supreme Court has exercised its powers by overturning laws and voiding government decisions it deemed inconsistent with the whole body of Basic Laws. It also gave a legal remedy to non-citizens, and especially Palestinians in the administered territories.
And that is the problem, according to Economics Minister Naftali Bennett of Habayit Hayehudi and coalition chairman Yariv Levin of Likud. They are promoting a series of laws that would give the state more control over the 15 Supreme Court justices, to deny it the ability to overturn Knesset legislation, and to require it to give priority to the state’s Jewish identity over its democratic one in deciding cases.
In essence, Bennett and Levin want to alter the very nature of the state by diminishing the status as a democracy, and perhaps even paving the way for it to become a theocracy.
Everyone is protected by an independent judiciary. Everyone is protected by a check on legislative power. No one is protected if that independence is watered down, and the power to overturn bad laws is eliminated.
It will be a sad day indeed if the two men have their way.