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Masses expected at Jerusalem pro-overhaul rally ahead of constitutional face-off

With tensions fraying ahead of a series of high-profile High Court of Justice hearings on whether to nullify controversial laws passed by the coalition, masses of right-wing supporters of the current government’s judicial overhaul were set to rally in Jerusalem Thursday evening and urge the top court not to intervene.

Dubbed the “Liberty Demonstration” by its organizers, the protest will argue that the country’s top judges “don’t have the authority to nullify the people’s choice” and will call on them not to “drag the state into a constitutional crisis.”

Speakers at the event were set to include Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, Prof. Elisha Haas, Dr. Keren Asayag and lawyer Michael Dvorin.

Police said Thursday that roads around the Supreme Court and the Knesset would be blocked from around 4 p.m.

The rally comes days ahead of a September 12 hearing on petitions against the reasonableness law, part of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul, which bars courts from intervening in government and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.” Later, on September 28, a separate hearing will be held on petitions against a law shielding prime ministers from forced recusal.

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Both pieces of legislation are amendments to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, which the country’s top court has never voided. The process for legislating Basic Laws is the same as other bills in Israel’s unicameral parliament, with no special majority needed.

Ahead of the demonstration, Smotrich said in a statement Wednesday that “we won’t let the Supreme Court nullify Basic Laws, which clearly means taking our voting ballots [from the election] and chucking them into the trash.

“When the High Court voids Basic Laws, the High Court takes our liberty and our right to choose and decides it is the legislator instead of the Knesset,” he added.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut (center) together with Justice Uzi Vogelman (left) and Justice Isaac Amit at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, August 3, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The reasonableness legislation, an amendment to Basic Law: The Judiciary, prohibits all courts, including the top court, from using the judicial yardstick of “reasonableness” to review and potentially reverse government and ministerial decisions. It was the first major law passed in the government’s far-reaching judicial overhaul plans.

The court is set to review the highly contentious legislation with a full bench of all 15 justices for the first time in its history.

Overhaul supporters have contended that since no law authorizes the High Court to strike down Basic Laws, it lacks the power to do so. Ministers and coalition MKs have argued that the reasonableness law is necessary to stop the High Court from imposing its own worldview on government decisions and actions, and have said that the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials will still be subject to other tools in administrative law.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana suggested Wednesday that the coalition may not accept a potential ruling to nullify the reasonableness law, warning that such a decision could “plunge us into the abyss” and that the Knesset “won’t submissively allow itself to be trampled.”

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana holds a press conference at the Knesset, September 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Israel is democratic, and in a democracy, the sovereign is the people. In a democratic state, the justice system respects the sovereign, the people and its elected officials, and this respect is mutual. There is no debate, and there cannot be one, over the question of whether the Knesset has authorized the court to nullify Basic Laws,” he said, arguing that the court possesses no such power.

However, critics — who have held weekly mass protests against the overhaul for 35 consecutive weeks — say a Basic Law can be struck down if it is determined that lawmakers misused their power to legislate such laws by passing them for a narrow, short-term, political or personal reason.

The petitioners against the reasonableness law argue that it could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the reasonableness standard it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials.

The High Court will also soon hear petitions against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s refusal to convene the Judicial Selections Committee, which he is trying to refigure as part of the judicial shakeup to give the coalition control over appointing judges.