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Israel top court weighs rules on removing prime minister

Israel's Supreme Court president Esther Hayut and judges hear petitions against a law restricting how a prime minister can be removed from office
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israel's top court heard appeals Thursday against a law restricting how a prime minister can be removed from office, as current premier Benjamin Netanyahu faces protests against the government's judicial overhaul.

The hearing got underway as Israel is deeply divided over the judicial reforms, which have triggered one of the country's biggest ever protest movements against the hard-right government.

Eleven of the Supreme Court's 15 judges heard three appeals against the incapacity law that was passed in March as an amendment to one of Israel's Basic Laws, the country's quasi-constitution.

Under the law, a prime minister can only be declared unfit for office by themself or a two-thirds majority of the cabinet, and the decision must be supported by at least 80 of parliament's 120 lawmakers.

Demonstrators unfurl a giant banner against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a Tel Aviv rally against the judicial overhaul plan on September 23, 2023

Supreme Court Judge Yitzhak Amit argued it amounts to a "personal" amendment intended to protect Netanyahu from impeachment proceedings.

A lawyer representing the government, Yitzhak Bart, acknowledged the law was passed for "political reasons linked to the prime minister" but argued the move was to "fill a gap in the law".

Justice Minister Yariv Levin declared the hearing "an attempt to overturn the elections, in a statement published by his office.

Netanyahu in May 2020 became Israel's first sitting prime minister to stand trial over a series of graft allegations, which he denies.

In February, an anti-corruption group lodged a petition with the Supreme Court aimed at declaring Netanyahu unfit for office over his trial.

- Weekly protests -

Ahead of the Supreme Court session, dozens of protesters rallied outside Netanyahu's Jerusalem residence, where four people were arrested, according to the police.

Demonstrations have been held at least weekly since January and have consistently drawn tens of thousands to rally against the government, which took office in December and includes extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox ministers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet argue the judicial overhaul is necessary to rebalance powers between elected officials and judges, while opponents say it paves the way for an autocracy

Netanyahu's cabinet argues the reforms are necessary to rebalance powers between elected officials and judges, while opponents say they pave the way for authoritarian rule.

Before its amendment, the incapacity law lacked detail on the justifiable reasons to remove a premier from office, or on the procedure required.

Petitions to the court demand the amended incapacity legislation either be scrapped or deferred until after the next election.

Any amendment to a Basic Law carries the same quasi-constitutional legal status and the Supreme Court has never struck down such a law in the past.

Israeli media nonetheless reported that the judges could postpone application of the amendment until the next election, as requested by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara.

The question would then arise as to whether she could dismiss Netanyahu over the graft allegations.

An Israeli prime minister has been declared unfit for office only once, when Ariel Sharon was hospitalised in 2006 and replaced by his deputy Ehud Olmert.

The opposition subsequently sought to have Olmert removed, as he was prosecuted while in office, but the Supreme Court rejected their complaint.

Judges reached a similar conclusion in 2021 when they ruled Netanyahu could stay in power despite the corruption charges against him.

He was subsequently voted out of office, only to return to the premiership following November's election.

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court held a landmark hearing on a law which curtails judges' ability to strike down government decisions.