Bill sharply curbing court’s powers to strike down laws said headed for Knesset vote

Ultra-Orthodox coalition parties reportedly pressure government to take measure off backburner early, seeking to rush legislation bypassing court on army draft and other rulings

MK Simcha Rothman at a Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Simcha Rothman at a Constitution Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 12, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coalition is reportedly expected to bring a highly controversial piece of its judicial overhaul package to a first Knesset vote early this week, advancing a bill that will give MKs the ability to protect nearly all laws from interference by the High Court.

According to multiple reports on Sunday in the Hebrew-language press, the bill is being pushed ahead due to intense pressure from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, who have long sought a way to bypass court rulings that they see impacting their religious traditions, such as rules regarding mandatory military enlistment.

The proposal, which may come before the plenum as early as Monday or Tuesday, is one part of a major effort by the new government to remove judicial checks on its powers as part of a radical overhaul of the country’s judiciary. The overall shakeup plan, pushed at breakneck speed and made up of several different bills, will also give the government expanded powers over the appointments of judges and legal advisers.

The bill in question gives lawmakers the ability to add a so-called “notwithstanding clause” to nearly any bill, deeming it outside the High Court’s judicial review authority. Under the proposal, the immunity clause can be used even if the law in question directly contradicts one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

Hebrew-language media reports, which were unsourced, spoke of an “override bill” being advanced, which could also refer to a bid for legislation allowing a simple majority of 61 Knesset members to overturn High Court decisions. However, while plans exist for such a bill, no such proposal has yet been put on the table. Knesset sources could not immediately be reached for comment.

According to reports, government members had sought to put the proposal for a notwithstanding clause on the backburner in order to concentrate on a piece of the package also advancing to the Knesset that would give the government the power to select new judges; that legislation, which gives the coalition a decisive majority. on the committee to select justices, passed its first Knesset reading last month. However, ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and especially United Torah Judaism demanded that the court override legislation advance as well.

Head of Finance committee MK Moshe Gafni with MK Tali Gottlieb during a Finance committee meeting at Knesset on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An unnamed source with UTJ told Walla news site that there was “no reason to wait” on advancing this clause. If the bill “to change the selection process for judges passed in a first reading, this too must move forward,” the source was quoted saying.

The private members’ bill, sponsored by Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair MK Simcha Rothman, passed a preliminary plenum vote on February 22. A parallel bill with similar language but sponsored by the government for fast-tracking is also in the works, and was provisionally cleared by the committee on March 1 for its first of three Knesset readings. The two bills are slated to be combined before a final vote.

Under the bill, legislators will be able to append an immunity clause onto nearly any piece of legislation, save those that require passage with a special majority of more than 61 MKs.

Coalition lawmakers have pushed ahead with the legislative package despite intense protests at home and abroad over the last several weeks.

Israelis wave national flags as they protest against the government’s controversial judicial overhaul bill in Tel Aviv on March 9, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Critics say the proposals will give the government practically unchecked power, leading to warnings from senior officials and others that Israel will become a democracy in name only, with damaging repercussions rippling out into a wide array of Israeli life. Supporters say the package will end years of court overreach undermining the legislative goals of elected representatives.

President Isaac Herzog has sought to bring the opposition and coalition together for compromise talks, but has made little headway. Opposition leaders have demanded that the government freeze legislative work to allow time for talks to take shape, while the government has demanded talks without preconditions.

Carrie Keller-Lynn and Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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