Dozens of noisy protesters gathered outside the court building as the hearing began, banging drums, blowing whistles, chanting and waving Israeli flags.
Since the government unveiled the plans in January, opponents have rallied weekly in their tens of thousands in cities across Israel.
The protesters have come largely from the country’s secular middle class. Leading hi-tech business figures have threatened to relocate. Perhaps most dramatic, thousands of military reservists have broken with the government and declared their refusal to report for duty over the plan.
Netanyahu’s supporters tend to be poorer, more religious and live in West Bank settlements or outlying rural areas. Many of his supporters are working-class Mizrahi Jews, with roots in Middle Eastern countries, and have expressed hostility toward what they say is an elitist, secular class of Ashkenazi, or European, Jews.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut said there were eight petitions filed against the legislation limiting the “reasonableness clause”.
“It’s clear you think that the duty to act reasonably applies to the government and its ministers,” Hayut said, addressing a lawyer representing parliament.
“But who makes sure they indeed do so?”
Protester Batia Cohen said the government was out to “destroy democracy” in Israel.
“This is the only country that I have and I have children, grandchildren, and I’m fighting for them,” said Cohen, 63, who had travelled to Jerusalem from the northern port city of Haifa.
“They [government] want to be above law, so the only one that protects us from them is the court.”
Thousands of protesters chanting “Democracy, Democracy,” had also rallied in Jerusalem on the eve of the hearing.
“The amendment to the basic law that will be debated in court today is not a basic law, it’s an irresponsible document,” opposition leader Yair Lapid said on Facebook.
Netanyahu’s administration, a coalition between his Likud party and extreme-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, argues that the legal changes are needed to rebalance powers between politicians and the judiciary.
Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the main architect of the reforms, said the Tuesday hearing was a “fatal blow” to democracy, since for the first time the court was considering striking down a basic law, legislation that in Israel takes the place of a constitution.
“The court, whose judges select themselves behind closed doors and without a record, is placing itself above the government, the parliament, the people and the law,” he said in a statement.
“This is absolutely against democracy. It means that the court has no checks and balances. It’s a single ruler.”
Israeli media have reported some moves towards a compromise between the government and the opposition, while Netanyahu said on Monday he said aimed to “reach a national consensus to restore the balance of power” between the branches of government.
Israel does not have a constitution or upper house of parliament, and the “reasonableness” law was put in place to allow judges to determine whether a government had overreached its powers.
The Supreme Court used the measure in a high-profile ruling which barred Aryeh Deri, a Netanyahu ally, from serving in the cabinet because of a tax evasion conviction.
Opponents accuse Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges he denies, of trying to use the proposed legal overhaul to quash possible judgments against him, and will concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his allies.
He rejects the accusation.
“We stand here today with millions of citizens to stop the government coup,” said Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which filed the petition along with a handful of other civil society groups. “Together we will preserve Israeli democracy.”
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