Israel’s Supreme Court said Wednesday that it would begin in September to review a contentious new law that diminishes the court’s own role, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis and renewed social turmoil if the judges then overturn the legislation.
The decision sets up a looming clash between the executive branch of government and the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court must now decide whether to reassert its dominance over Prime Minister Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s government — or it must accept the move to reduce its own power.
Either conclusion is likely to provoke widespread anger, since the issue has become a proxy for a much broader battle over Israel’s character.
The court’s announcement came in response to the decision on Monday, by Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, to pass a deeply divisive bill that stops the court from overruling government decisions with the legal standard of “reasonableness.” The government said the term, never defined in a statute, was too subjective and gave unelected judges too much leeway to overrule elected lawmakers.
The bitter debate over the law has widened Israel’s social fissures into profound divides: Large parts of society fear the change will remove a key check on Mr. Netanyahu’s government — the most nationalist and religiously conservative in Israeli history — and allow it to gradually turn Israel into a less pluralist and more conservative country.
The passage of the law set off widespread street unrest on Monday and a doctors’ strike on Tuesday. It forced warnings from banks and a major ratings agency about the potential negative effects on Israel’s economy. And it prompted scores of Army, Navy and Air Force reservists — a key part of Israel’s military forces — to resign from duty.
It also led several opposition groups to petition the court to use its remaining powers to overturn the law. The court’s chief justice, Esther Hayut, cut short a trip to Germany to respond to those petitions — returning from Berlin on Tuesday night, a day earlier than planned.
Less than a day later, on Wednesday afternoon, the court announced on its website that it would hear two of the petitions in September. An exact date has yet to be set, and the court did not announce which of its 15 judges would hear the petitions or how long the process would last. The court often takes weeks if not months to reach a decision.
The court has not issued an injunction barring the law from coming into effect, as some opponents had hoped. The hearing’s date will be set in the coming days, a Supreme Court spokesman said.
If the court strikes down the law, Mr. Netanyahu’s government will be forced to decide whether to respect the decision of an institution that it is trying to restrain. And should the government reject the court’s ruling, Israel’s other key institutions — its military, police, civil service and lower courts — will in turn need to decide whether to obey the country’s executive or judicial branch.
Yariv Levin, the justice minister and architect of the overhaul, told an Israeli news station in late March that the court would be “crossing every red line” if it struck down the overhaul legislation. “We would certainly not accept that,” he said.
Asked on Wednesday if he would respect the court’s decision, Mr. Levin declined to comment.
Simcha Rothman, another coalition lawmaker who helped shepherd the law through Parliament, said he wouldn’t discuss “hypothetical scenarios.”
But he said the court had no right to intervene in a law meant to define the limits of its authority.
“If the judges have even a little social responsibility, they shouldn’t make a decision that will pull the rug out from under their feet,” Mr. Rothman said in a phone call.
Few senior officials have spoken publicly about how they would respond to a constitutional crisis. But according to several major Israeli news outlets, the head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, referred to the question in a recent meeting with staff.
“If the situation becomes a constitutional crisis, I will stand on the right side,” said David Barnea, the Mossad’s director, in comments leaked to Channel 12. “But it is not yet that time.”
The judicial overhaul has bitterly divided the country and provoked months of mass demonstrations. The dispute reflects a painful divide in Israeli society, between those who seek a more secular and pluralist country, and those with a more religious and nationalist vision.
It is also part of a broader argument about how to preserve Israel’s self-image as a Jewish and democratic state amid disagreement among Israelis about what those words mean.
Mr. Netanyahu and his allies argue the overhaul is necessary to preserve Israel’s democracy, saying it reins in activist judges who have seized too much power and tied the hands of elected leaders.
Critics say the law would undermine democracy by removing a key check on government power and pushing Israel toward authoritarianism.
Unlike many Western democracies, Israel does not have a formal constitution or a second chamber in Parliament — leaving the court as the main check on government overreach.