The Israeli government has in recent days advanced legislation to limit or entirely strip the ability of the country’s Supreme Court to strike down laws it deems unconstitutional. Critics warn that such legislation would create dictatorial powers for the executive, put at risk the rights of the country’s Arab population and other minority groups, and initiate a constitutional crisis.
Israel does has never had a constitution that codifies the balance of power or system of checks and balances between the three branches of government, a situation that leaves the authority of the judiciary extremely vulnerable to erosion and even revocation by the legislature.
Limiting the Supreme Court’s power has been a stated goal of the Israeli right for years. Last December, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked — both of the far-right Jewish Home party — unveiled a bill that would allow the Knesset to override any Supreme Court decision with a simple majority, bar it from overturning laws on procedural grounds, and increase the threshold required for the Court to strike down a law.
While the current push to limit the court’s power (or in the government’s terms, “to bypass it”) is a reaction to the former’s repeated intervention in government plans to imprison and deport African asylum seekers in recent years, the root of the issue is actually the occupation and the settlements in the West Bank.
Hadash MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), a legal scholar who sits on the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, noted that in the Israeli system the Supreme Court’s role is to defend the rights of minorities and marginalized groups. “There is no real democracy that does not have meaningful judicial review,” commented Jabareen.
But even if the limitations on the Supreme Court aren’t passed by the Knesset this time around, in an interview with the website 972, MK Jabareen stressed, the protections of minority rights will already have been weakened. “Even the current discussion of limiting the powers of the Supreme Court, or eliminating them altogether — even this kind of discourse itself is damaging.”
“The justices are influenced by this atmosphere of attacks against the Supreme Court, and that might lead to the [self-imposed] weakening of the Supreme Court without the legislation itself,” MK Jabareen concluded. “It’s a win-win situation for Netanyahu.”