A blow against Israel’s Supreme Court plunges the country into crisis

On July 24th Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the first in a series of laws aimed at drastically limiting the powers of the country’s Supreme Court. Members of the opposition walked out in protest at the final reading of the law, which passed 64-0 in the 120-strong chamber, with the votes of all the members of the far-right coalition led by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. The law all but eliminates the court’s ability to overturn government decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness”.

Since the coalition presented its plans nearly eight months ago, hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest. Mr. Netanyahu’s allies claim that in recent decades the Supreme Court has been too interventionist and that its powers should be curbed.

Opponents of the reforms argue that they will undermine Israeli democracy and risk introducing majoritarian rule.

The government has been unmoved. Thousands of reserve officers in Israel’s armed forces have announced that they will no longer turn up for their voluntary service, but before the vote Mr. Netanyahu refused to meet the army’s chief of staff, who wanted to warn him of the security implications of the dispute. The prime minister has also brushed off a rare public warning from Israel’s closest ally: President Joe Biden called on the government to postpone the vote and try to reach a compromise with the opposition. The White House described the result as “unfortunate”.

After attempts to pass the full raft of his government’s legal reforms stalled in the face of widespread opposition, Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly promised that he would try to pursue the constitutional changes through consensus. That came to nothing. Under pressure from the extreme elements in his coalition, he abandoned efforts to find any kind of compromise.

Instead the government took one of the original four laws they had hoped to pass earlier this year and rushed a vote on that through the Knesset in a matter of weeks.

Even as the final votes were being held on Monday, Mr. Netanyahu and his relatively moderate defense minister, Yoav Gallant, sought to delay the parliamentary procedure, in a last-gasp attempt to find a compromise. In the Knesset session the hardline justice minister, Yariv Levin, could be seen berating his colleagues, as Mr. Netanyahu sat glumly silent. Mr. Levin and other far-right members of the coalition threatened to resign if the amendment was not passed immediately.

The fact that Mr. Netanyahu, just back from a hospital stay to have a pacemaker fitted, was unable to persuade his allies to delay the vote suggests that his power is now limited. It is unclear what will prevent the most extreme members of the coalition of nationalist and ultra- religious parties from pursuing their political agenda, both on the legal reforms and more widely. In the aftermath of the vote Mr. Levin said this was the “first step” in fixing Israel’s judicial system. Ministers have threatened to use the freedom the new law gives them to fire the independent-minded attorney-general. They could replace her with someone friendlier to the government who would be more willing to revisit the corruption charges currently facing Mr. Netanyahu (which he strenuously denies).

And then there are the next stages in the judicial overhaul. When the Knesset returns in October after a long summer recess, the coalition plans to put forward legislation which would give it control of the appointment of Supreme Court judges. In a speech shortly after the vote Mr. Netanyahu promised that he would once again pursue consensus on these matters. His allies have no interest in any compromise, however, and the prime minister has little leverage over them.

Israel may find itself in a constitutional crisis within days, well before the next pieces of legislation come up. Various civil-rights groups have already sent petitions to the Supreme Court calling for the new law to be overturned. The judges will still have legal tools to review government decisions, but these will be much more limited. If they rule that this new law restricting their powers is unconstitutional, they will be on a collision course with the government.

The demonstrators who believe their country is on a slippery slope to dictatorship are not going home. Entire reserve units and squadrons could be paralyzed. Major business groups have already closed their establishments in protest and the trade unions are considering a general strike. Angry protests broke out following the vote, causing havoc in central Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere around the country. Israel is facing a tempestuous summer.