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Anti-overhaul protesters and police scuffle at Levin’s home, day before key hearing

Protesters against the judicial overhaul scuffled with police outside the Modiin home of Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Monday morning, a day before a highly anticipated High Court hearing on the first piece of legislation passed in the coalition’s contentious judicial overhaul.

Protesters unveiled a giant banner reading, “There are judges in Jerusalem,” a quote attributed to former prime minister Menachem Begin, the founder of the Likud party of Levin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Levin is the architect of the government’s program to weaken the judiciary.

Police said in a statement that the demonstrators were too close to the minister’s house, and were disrupting public order. The scuffles broke out when officers began to move the protesters.

Four protesters were detained, according to reports. There was no confirmation from police.

In videos circulated on social media, protesters could be seen trying to prevent Levin’s vehicle from driving down the street. Police officers could be seen removed the demonstrators from the path of the car, while others walked alongside in an attempt to keep protesters away.

The demonstration was led by the Brothers and Sisters in Arms reservist group, which said in a statement that it was making a “clear call to the prime minister that he should stop allowing Levin to function as the de facto prime minister, and should shelve the laws of the coup d’état.”

“The dictatorial ‘reasonableness’ law endangers Israel’s position in the world and leaves Israel Defense Forces soldiers vulnerable [to prosecution] at the International Court of Justice in The Hague,” the statement read, echoing concerns from defense officials that the overhaul is weakening the military. In the past, the fact that Israel is perceived to have a robust court system has protected IDF soldiers from potential prosecution at The Hague.

The protest came hours ahead of a mass rally that was set to be held outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, ahead of Tuesday’s hearing of petitions against the reasonableness law. Thousands were expected to protest outside the Supreme Court, before marching to Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence.

Smaller demonstrations were planned at a number of locations around the country.

The law, the first major piece of legislation passed as part of the overhaul plan, bars the court from striking down a cabinet or ministerial decision based on its “extreme unreasonableness.”

An unprecedented full 15-justice panel of the High Court is slated to hear the petitions against the law on Tuesday. It is not known when the court will issue a ruling, and the expanded bench is likely to lengthen the process.

Various government ministers and other figures have warned of chaos should the court strike down the law, setting up a constitutional crisis.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L) at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Last week, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana gave a speech suggesting the coalition may not respect a decision by the court. He warned that a court ruling nullifying the reasonableness law could “plunge us into the abyss” and vowed that the Knesset “won’t submissively allow itself to be trampled.”

Netanyahu later posted the remarks by Ohana, a Likud member, on social media. The premier has previously been noncommittal when asked directly whether he will accept a High Court judgment invalidating the legislation.

In March, Levin said that were the justices to strike down his planned legislation remaking the Judicial Selection Committee, he would not accept their ruling. The intervention of the court, should it step in to repeal the legislation, “would be completely unjustified. In my opinion, it would mark the crossing of every red line. We certainly won’t accept it,” warned Levin.

However, on Sunday, three government ministers, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, said that High Court of Justice rulings must be respected.

Proponents of the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary have argued that the High Court lacks the authority to strike down the legislation, since it was passed as a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, none of which the justices have ever nullified. The process for legislating Basic Laws is the same as for other bills in Israel’s unicameral parliament, with no special majority needed.

A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv, September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst via protest groups)

In a briefing filed Friday ahead of the September 12 hearing, the government argued the court does not have the statutory authority to rule against a Basic Law and that any such verdict would be based on unlegislated and unclear “basic principles.” Opposition Leader Yair Lapid responded by casting doubt on the status of the recent legislation as an actual Basic Law.

The “reasonableness” law, passed in the Knesset in July, 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 so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

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