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Israel’s Supreme Court deals huge blow to Netanyahu, but one he may have to swallow

It’s all in the timing. On New Year’s Day, a little under three months since Hamas’ terrorist attacks, Israel’s Supreme Court issued a historic ruling. In an 8-7 decision, it struck down a controversial amendment to a Basic Law that removed the court’s own power to quash government decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness.”

The decision was unprecedented: never before had the court thrown out one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which act as an informal constitution, or an amendment to one. It did so, it said, because of the “severe” and “unprecedented” blow the law posed to the core characteristic of Israel as a democratic state. And so, the court will once again have the power to act against government decisions, as it did when it prevented a convicted tax fraudster from serving in cabinet.

“I don’t think he has the ability,” to respond, says Amit Segal, chief political analyst at Israel’s Channel 12. “Prior to the war, his allies (far-right ministers, Itamar) Ben Gvir, and (Bezalel) Smotrich would have demanded him to do so and dragged him to do it. Now they can’t because it’s a war and after the war, I think it will be the least of his problems.”

The judicial overhaul package was Netanyahu’s flagship policy in his latest stint as prime minister. Having the one law from it that he managed to pass thrown out by the Supreme Court is a blow against him personally, and against his right-wing government’s divisive policies.

But as Segal says, he has bigger problems right now. After October 7, Netanyahu’s reputation as “Mr. Security” has been shredded. As well as overseeing the fight against Hamas in Gaza, he’s fighting for his own political life: recent polling by Israel Channel 13 suggests that if an election were to be held tomorrow, he’d be out of the job.

And so it was left to Yariv Levin, Netanyahu’s Justice Minister and the architect of the judicial overhaul plans, to say something. But all he did was assail the timing of the decision (which wasn’t in the Supreme Court’s gift due to the impending retirement of two judges), saying it was the opposite of the unity the country now demanded.

“Instead of turning this into a crisis,” says Hazan, “the government is basically going to swallow this and continue trying to prosecute the war and not go back to polarizing the country.”

It helps that opponents of the bill also took the ruling in their stride. Benny Gantz, the leader of the National Unity political bloc who now sits in the war cabinet, said the verdict must be respected, and Israel had to avoid reopening the wounds of the past year. “We are brothers,” he said. “We all have a common destiny.”

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