Israel's Supreme Court on Tuesday delayed the first of three pivotal hearings on the legality of the judicial overhaul, spearheaded by the far-right government of Benjamin Netanyahu, after the country's attorney general expressed staunch opposition to the plan.
For the eight months since the coalition took power, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a Netanyahu ally, has refused to convene the committee that selects the nation's judges, leaving numerous judgeships open across the country.
Lawyers for Attorney General Gail Baharav-Miara will now argue against the justice minister's counsel in court, a situation that experts said is highly exceptional.
Levin, a key architect of the overhaul, seeks to change the makeup of the selection committee to give Netanyahu's far-right ruling coalition the final say over the appointment of judges, part of a broader judicial overhaul proposed by Netanyahu's government.
Before the court delayed the hearing for 12 days, petitions challenging Levin's refusal were set to be heard on Thursday. Under normal circumstances, experts said, Levin's position would have been represented by the attorney general.
But after Baharav-Miara made clear she opposed the overhaul and Levin's position, he requested the hearing be delayed so he had time to seek independent counsel.
"This is all highly exceptional," said Amichai Cohen, a constitutional law professor and senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. Until the current government took office, he said, the attorney general and government rarely took separate positions. "Usually there is a dialogue in which a unified position is adopted," he said.
The Supreme Court delayed the hearing until September 19.
In a filing to the court on Monday, Baharav-Miara said Levin's actions had led to numerous vacancies. If the selection committee is not convened by the end of the year, according to the filing, there will be more than 53 vacant judgeships across the country — more than 5% of the national bench.
Levin has until Sunday to secure independent counsel and submit his position to the court.
The hearing is one of three pivotal cases Israel's Supreme Court will hear this month over the legality of the judicial overhaul. The judiciary's rulings could set the stage for a constitutional crisis if Netanyahu's government chooses not to obey the decisions.
The highest-profile case is set for Sept. 12, in which the court will hear challenges to the coalition's move in July to eliminate the "reasonableness standard."
The standard is used by the court to strike down parliamentary decisions and appointments on the basis that they are unreasonable.
Netanyahu's coalition — dominated by religious and ultranationalist parties — says the country's nonelected judges wield too much power and must be reined in. Critics of the overhaul, who represent a wide swath of Israeli society, say the plan will destroy the country's system of checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies.
For more than eight months, tens of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets to protest the overhaul, marking the most sustained demonstrations the country has ever seen.
The coalition says judges should not be allowed to overturn key decisions by elected officials. The government's critics say removing the standard of reasonability opens the door to corruption and improper appointments of unqualified cronies to important positions.