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Israel's Supreme Court rejects right-wing changes to the judiciary

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We go to Israel, where the country's Supreme Court says the government cannot limit the court's power after all.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By a narrow majority, the court struck down a law that was designed to curtail the court's own authority. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition passed the law last year. The effort united his right-wing government but divided Israeli society at large. It was the reason for massive protests in the months before the start of the war against Hamas.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Tel Aviv now to tell us more about this. Daniel, good morning.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So would you just start by reminding us about what this law was all about?

ESTRIN: Yeah, it was the No. 1 focus of the right-wing government when it came to power in Israel a year ago. And the idea was that the government wanted to strip the Supreme Court of some of its powers. This is the most right-wing, religious, nationalist government in Israel's history. And it saw the Supreme Court as too left-wing, too protective of Palestinian rights, and said the government should be the one to rule. Let the elected officials rule, accusing the court of too much interference.

And this attempt to overhaul the judiciary sparked historic protests in Israel. Hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, demonstrators accusing the government of weakening Israel's democracy. But the government passed this law anyway this summer. It stripped the court of one of its powers to overturn government appointments.

MARTIN: And why did the court strike it down? What grounds did it give for this?

ESTRIN: The court says that this law was a, quote, "severe and unprecedented harm to the core character of Israel as a democratic country" and said the government does not have omnipotent powers. This is a landmark ruling in Israel. It's the first time the Supreme Court has overturned the equivalent of a constitutional amendment. And it is a big blow to Netanyahu and to his right-wing allies because this judicial overhaul was the No. 1 main agenda of the government.

MARTIN: And is there any way in which this decision might play into Israel's handling of the war in Gaza?

ESTRIN: Well, the Israeli government now, we hear officials, they're not very happy with this ruling, but they suggest that they're not going to do anything further to overhaul the judiciary while the country is at war. They recognize it's too divisive of an issue at this time of war. But it does add fuel to what we are hearing as a growing discontent in Israel about the war, about the government's role in this catastrophic situation that Israel is facing.

Israeli defense officials in the months leading up to the war had warned publicly that Israel's regional enemies saw how the country was torn apart over this judicial overhaul debate, and that enemies were identifying this as a moment of weakness to attack Israel. And indeed, Hamas attacked on October 7. The military spokesman yesterday said that was likely one of the reasons Hamas chose this moment to attack. And there are also implications, Michel, about the day after the war. Analysts say that the government - you hear officials in the government talking about all kinds of policy proposals for what they want to see in Gaza, things that the Supreme Court might determine to be unreasonable. And now that they've overturned this law, they will be able to weigh in.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin speaking to us from Tel Aviv. Daniel, thank you so much.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.