A decision on Wednesday by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to endorse a proposal to scale down the High Court’s say in laws passed by the Knesset touched off accusations from the opposition that he was trying to destroy Israeli democracy.
Netanyahu told a meeting of coalition leaders that he had decided in favor of a bill on the British model, which would restrict the High Court to an advisory role, allowing it merely to flag laws that it deems unconstitutional. Until now, the Court has frequently intervened to override Knesset legislation on a range of controversial issues, from drafting yeshivah students to deporting illegal migrants.
The prime minister’s choice, the most comprehensive of several different proposals on the table, reportedly came as a surprise to his coalition partners. It was thought more likely that he would back a bill drafted by the Jewish Home party that would have focused on issues of state handling of terrorism or deportations.
The decision, described by The Jerusalem Post as “bypassing Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett from the Right,” was not welcomed by the latter. Jewish Home officials were quoted as saying that Netanyahu’s decision would set back the years-long effort to rein in the Court by weeks or months, as the more complex proposal would require additional time to put into legislative language and navigate through the Knesset, whereas their bill was ready to go.
A Likud statement on Wednesday quoted MK Yair Levin telling Bennett earlier in the day, “You want only a pinpoint supersession clause [for the asylum seekers deportation bill], which is a weak bill. We want to advance a stronger and broader bill.”
Likud officials claimed that the Netanyahu-backed bill would be ready for parliamentary consideration as early as next Sunday.
Papering over the frictions, Bennett said Wednesday that he was “pleasantly surprised” by the prime minister’s decision and pledged his party’s support for any version of the bill.
Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) argued that adoption of the British model was right and necessary, and that more narrowly-based legislation would only “put a band-aid” on the dispute between the Knesset and the Court which has roiled Israeli politics for decades.
Reaction from the opposition parties – who have fervently defended the “activist” Israeli High Court, which usually rules along a secular, leftwing bias – was perhaps even more incendiary than expected.
Zionist Camp chairman Avi Gabbay called Netanyahu’s initiative a “bill to assassinate the Supreme Court,” part and parcel of his corrupt, anti-democratic agenda.
Gabbau said his party would do everything possible to prevent the passage of laws that harm the courts, and urged others to join him.
Yesh Atid MK Yael German went further: “A week before Israel’s 70th birthday, the prime minister is betraying democracy and the Declaration of Independence,” she charged.
“If anyone thinks this will only harm refugees and Arabs, they are mistaken. Today it is refugees but tomorrow it will be women, chareidim, and when our minorities are harmed, we cease to be a democracy.”
German’s concern for chareidim was noteworthy, considering that her party has made charedi-bashing its founding principle.