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Israel’s Supreme Court Weighs Law That Limits Its Own Power

This is a developing story and will be updated regularly.

Israel’s Supreme Court convened on Tuesday to begin considering whether to strike down a deeply contentious law that limits the court’s own power, in a hearing that sets the stage for a constitutional showdown between the country’s judicial and executive branches.

The high court is considering a bill passed by Parliament in July — pushed by the most nationalist and religiously conservative government in Israel’s history — declaring that judges could no longer overrule ministerial decisions using the legal standard of “reasonableness.”

The case is considered one of the most consequential in Israel’s history: Israelis from all political backgrounds say the country’s future and character partly depends on the hearing’s result. Justices could take until January to reach a decision.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees the court as an obstacle to its vision of a more conservative, nationalist society. The court has historically acted as a check on religious influence on public life, some Israeli activity in the occupied West Bank, and decisions that favor Jews over Arabs.

The court is hearing arguments from eight petitioners against the law, most of them civil society organizations that campaign for good governance, as well as representatives of the government and Parliament.

The law’s opponents argue that the legislation undermines Israeli democracy by limiting the power of the Supreme Court, which is the main check on government overreach. Israel has no written constitution and no second chamber of Parliament, increasing the court’s importance as a counterweight to the power of the cabinet and the legislature.

Eliad Shraga, who leads one of the groups petitioning against the law, said on Tuesday that the law was a kind of “regime coup.”

“This is a historical day, a historical event,” Mr. Shraga added, shortly before entering the courtroom with his sons. “I hope that it will be a red light to the regime.”

The law is one part of a wider legislative package, the rest of which the government has so far failed to implement. The government still hopes to pass another law that would give it greater control over who gets to be a judge. But Mr. Netanyahu has ruled out pursuing a third plan that would have allowed Parliament to overrule Supreme Court decisions.

“I am truly emotional to be standing here today,” Mr. Beret added.

Legal analysts said it was far too early to determine how the court might rule. But from the judges’ opening questions and statements, it was clear that at least some members of the court had concerns about the law.

“It appears that you certainly believe that the duty to act reasonably also applies to the government and its ministers,” Justice Hayut said to Mr. Beret, the parliamentary adviser.

But if the court is barred from using the reasonableness standard, Justice Hayut added, “Who supervises that they do indeed act reasonably?”

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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