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Israel’s Supreme Court votes to strike down Netanyahu's judicial reform law that sparked nationwide protests in 2023

Israel's Supreme Court has struck down an amendment that stripped it of key powers to overturn decisions made by the country’s parliament and prime minister, according to a report by The Jerusalem Post.

The amendment was passed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing government and stripped the court of its ability to overturn laws it deemed “unreasonable,” sparking months of nationwide protests last year.

The law was part of a broader judicial overhaul proposed by Netanyahu and his coalition of religious and nationalist partners, which caused a deep rift in Israel and concern over the country's democratic principles among the country’s Western allies.

As noted by Reuters, Monday’s court ruling has the potential to strain the unity of an emergency government formed to navigate the war with Hamas, which includes both hardliners like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, as well as critics of the judicial overhaul, such as centrist Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Prior to the passing of the judicial reform bill, Israel’s laws were judged by the «reasonableness standard,” which was designed by the Supreme Court to check executive-level decisions. The principle applied to the “bureaucracy in government ministries and local authorities,” and was used review the “decisions of elected officials and those they appoint.” “In other words, it's where the judicial branch weighs in on policy decisions made by the other branches which impact constitutional rights,” as explained by The Jerusalem Post.

The “reasonableness principle” was applied in the removal of politician and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri from his ministerial post in January last year. At the time, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled that Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister was “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his criminal convictions, most recently for tax fraud in 2022. In a 2022 plea bargain that resulted in a suspended sentence, Deri had vowed to quit politics in exchange for his freedom, but did not fulfil his promise, going on to head the Shas party’s Knesset slate in the 2022 elections. The court then stripped him of his ministerial chair in a 10-to-1 ruling.

As noted by The Jerusalem Post, “the coalition [government] wants to limit the reasonableness standard and adapt it to a proposal written by High Court Justice Noam Sohlberg in 2020 in the Shiloah journal. According to Sohlberg, the reasonableness standard should be limited, not abolished, and applied only to decisions of the administrative level (bureaucracy) and not to decisions of the elected officials (politicians).”

Limiting the “reasonableness standard” may ease some of the tensions between the Knesset, the government and the High Court, the publication wrote, as its limitation would lead to the court not discussing decisions made by elected officials. On the other hand, “the proposed law as it stands today is sweeping and eliminates the possibility of the High Court of Justice to discuss any decision made by the prime minister, a minister, or any other elected public official,” the publication concluded.

The proposal of abolishing the “reasonableness standard” sparked mass protests in Israel in 2023, as many Israelis feared that the introduction of the amendment would be the first step towards a dictatorship.

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