Several thousand protesters supporting the Israeli government's judicial overhaul rallied in front of the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on Thursday, before a pivotal hearing next week on the legality of the first major bill of the overhaul.
The bill, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right coalition passed in July, bans the Supreme Court from striking down government decisions it deems unreasonable.
With leading politicians signaling they won't respect a court decision striking down the law, the stage could be set for a constitutional crisis. The hearing is set for Tuesday, though a ruling is likely months away.
The pro-overhaul crowd Thursday was overwhelmingly religious, many of them working class Jews of Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, descent. Others came in from West Bank settlements.
Mizrahi Jews tend to be poorer and some have expressed hostility toward what they say is an elitist class of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews. Brandishing signs with the words “end the judicial dictatorship” and “the elites are taking control," protesters said the overhaul was necessary to rein in the power of unelected justices.
“The Supreme Court is on the way to becoming the dictator of Israel,” protester Avram Farber said. “It’s trying to push for making the Israeli government — that enjoys a majority in the parliament — to be illegitimate.”
Opponents of the overhaul, who come largely from the country’s secular middle class, see the plan as a power-grab by Netanyahu's government that will weaken the country's checks and balances. They fear that by limiting the power of the court, Netanyahu and his ultranationalist allies are pushing the country toward autocratic rule. Their grassroots protest movement, the largest in Israel's history, is now nearing its ninth month.
For the first time in Israeli history, all 15 justices of the Supreme Court will hear Tuesday's case.
The court will rule on the legality of a bill that weakens its ability to act as a check on the ruling coalition, headed by the prime minister. The bill bars the court from striking down parliamentary decisions on the basis that they aren't “reasonable.”
The justices have used the standard in the past to nullify government decisions that they view as unsound or corrupt.
This year, for instance, the court struck down the appointment of a Cabinet minister because of prior convictions for accepting bribes and tax offenses.
The government says the reasonability standard is anti-democratic, because it allows judges to override the decisions of an elected parliamentary majority.
A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank, found that just 14% of the Israeli public supports the legislation, while roughly 60% oppose it. The survey, conducted earlier this year, questioned 3,077 Israeli adults and had a margin of error of 1.8 percentage points.
If the justices strike down the law, the stage may be set for a constitutional crisis. The parliamentary speaker, Amir Ohana, hinted this week that he wouldn't accept the court's ruling, saying he wouldn't allow the Knesset to be “trampled.” Netanyahu hasn't publicly committed to following the ruling of the court, but posted Ohana's comments to social media on Thursday.
The hearing set for Tuesday is the first of three overhaul cases on the court's docket this month.