Top Israeli court weighs in on Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel’s Supreme Court began hearing on Thursday the first in a series of appeals linked to a judicial overhaul undertaken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-right coalition, which has set off an unprecedented domestic crisis.

A March amendment to a quasi-constitutional “basic law” limited conditions under which a prime minister can be deemed unfit, or incapacitated, and removed from office.

The appellants, backed by the attorney general, want the law voided, arguing that parliament abused its power by tailoring it to personally suit Netanyahu. Proponents say it safeguards any democratically elected leader from wrongful ouster.

The case being heard by three justices pits the Supreme Court against the Knesset, or parliament, situated shouting-distance away across a rose garden on a Jerusalem hill where protesters gathered as the hearing began.

“It’s not a secret that our prime minister decided to wage a war on the Supreme Court and on the nature of Israel as a democracy, and we are taking the streets in order to stop it,” said former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

Supporters of Netanyahu, who bounded back to a record sixth term in late December, cast Thursday’s appeal – and others slated for next month – as a reminder of what they deem meddling by unelected judges in the democratic mandate of the coalition.

“We want a true and real democracy,” said lawyer Iska Bina, who supports the overhaul. “Our vote doesn’t matter anymore, because 15 judges decide for us.”

On Sept. 12, for the first time in Israel, the entire 15-justice bench will convene to hear an appeal against another basic law amendment – this one curbing Supreme Court powers.

Critics of the government’s judicial overhaul see the Supreme Court as the last check on an executive working in lock-step with the legislature in a country that has no written constitution, only “basic laws” that can easily be amended.

That Netanyahu is on trial in three graft cases has further fuelled worries at home and abroad for Israel’s democratic health. He denies any wrongdoing and any link between his trial and the justice reforms he seeks.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dedi Hayun; Writing by Dan Williams;Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)