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At pro-government protest, Smotrich warns High Court not to strike down overhaul law

Thousands of government supporters rallied Thursday evening outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, encouraging the coalition to continue its push to weaken the judiciary ahead of crucial High Court of Justice hearings on the divisive judicial overhaul.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and other ministers at the protest warned the High Court against striking down part of the coalition’s legislative package after the hearings, with Smotrich telling Chief Justice Esther Hayut that she “not dare” overturn the law.

There were no official turnout figures, but some 10,000 people were estimated to attend the protest, lower than at previous pro-government demonstrations and far lower than the mass anti-overhaul rallies held in Tel Aviv every week.

Many of the demonstrators carried signs with pictures of Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, Hayut and former prime minister Ehud Barak, with a caption saying “the ruling elite.”

Several protesters dressed as bananas, in an apparent attempt to portray the country as a banana republic where the government has no say. Supporters of the overhaul argue that the court has usurped power from elected officials.

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Signs were put up outside the Supreme Court reading, “The Supreme Court won’t decide over the [will of the] people.”

Some demonstrators were seen waving the yellow and black flag of the banned racist Kach movement.

Others displayed stickers and signs that expressed support for Jewish terrorists Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994, and Amiram Ben Uliel, who is in prison for the 2015 deadly firebombing of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma.

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The rally came ahead of a September 12 High Court hearing on petitions against the reasonableness law — part of the government’s judicial overhaul package — which bars courts from intervening in government and ministerial decisions based on their “reasonableness.” Later, on September 28, a separate hearing will be held on petitions against a law shielding prime ministers from forced recusal.

Both pieces of legislation are amendments to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, none of which the High Court has ever voided. The process for legislating Basic Laws is the same as other bills in Israel’s unicameral parliament, with no special majority needed.

“Nullifying a Basic Law is a deviation from all your authority and will be the end of democracy,” Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, said at Thursday’s protest in remarks directed at Hayut.

“Do not dare invalidate Basic Laws. The responsibility is on you,” he added.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks during a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2023. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Settlements Minister Orit Strock of Religious Zionism apologized to the rally-goers for the government not managing to push through the reform.

“You are not supposed to be here, you are supposed to be sitting at home. But there are people here who do not know how to accept the decision of the majority. They shout democracy, but actually demand a dictatorship,” she said.

Addressing Baharav-Miara, who has come out against the reasonableness law and refused to defend it before the High Court, Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan warned, “You’ll have to deal with me and another 2 million Israelis.”

Minister for the Advancement of Women May Golan also vowed to oppose the High Court if it strikes down coalition legislation.

“We won’t let them, even if we need to fight for another 10 years, we won’t let them,” said Golan, a minister from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

“As long as I’m in the government and the Knesset I won’t let them steal the country — and that’s what they want to do,” she said. “We’ll fight to pass the reforms.”

Ahead of the rally, one of the organizers warned the Supreme Court of “chaos” if it overturns the reasonableness law.

“Right-wingers, let’s stop using the term ‘constitutional crisis.’ There won’t be a crisis because in a democratic country, the government and Knesset representing the people have the final word,” wrote Berele Crombie on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“If the Supreme Court wants chaos it will get chaos,” he said.

Right-wing Israelis attend a rally in support of the government’s planned judicial overhaul outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on September 7, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Overhaul supporters have contended that since no law authorizes the High Court to strike down Basic Laws, it lacks the power to do so.

Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana suggested Wednesday that the coalition may not accept a potential ruling to nullify the reasonableness law, warning that such a decision could “plunge us into the abyss” and that the Knesset “won’t submissively allow itself to be trampled.”

Ohana’s speech was later shared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has not publicly committed to respecting the court’s judgment on the case. A refusal by the coalition to abide by a possible ruling against it would create a constitutional crisis over which branch of government has the final say.

Earlier this week, the High Court rejected a government request to postpone the September 12 hearing on the reasonableness law.

The law prohibits the courts from reviewing government action using the judicial standard of reasonableness, whereby it can determine that a decision was invalid because it was made without properly assessing key considerations, or while using improper considerations.

Opponents of the law argue that it could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the reasonableness standard it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials.

Ministers and coalition MKs have argued that the law is necessary to stop the High Court from asserting its own worldview on government decisions and actions, and have said that the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials will still be subject to other tools in administrative law.

The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

The High Court will also soon hear petitions against Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s refusal to convene the Judicial Selection Committee, which he is trying to reconfigure as part of the judicial shakeup to give the coalition control over appointing new judges.