Bill to protect Netanyahu from forced suspension passes preliminary Knesset reading

Legislation comes after High Court agrees to hear petition requesting PM be suspended due to conflict of interests over coalition’s sweeping legal reforms and his corruption trial

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a discussion and a vote in the  Knesset plenum, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset plenum, March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A government-backed bill to prevent the High Court of Justice from having the power to suspend the prime minister from office was approved 62 to 20 in its preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday.

The bill’s advance follows a decision by the High Court last month to hear a petition demanding the court compel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take a leave of absence from office, owing to his ostensible conflict of interests in presiding over far-reaching legal and judicial reforms while he is himself on trial for corruption.

The court’s decision to hear the petition, filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, generated outrage in the coalition, and led Likud faction chairman MK Ofir Katz to submit his bill to prohibit by law such an eventuality.

Israeli law does not provide an explicit legal mechanism for the forcible suspension of a prime minister, but the High Court has stated in the past that clauses in Basic Law: The Government dealing with temporary removal due to absence or illness could in extreme circumstances be interpreted as relating to legal problems faced by a premier.

Katz’s bill, which gained government backing on Sunday, stipulates that there would be only two ways for a prime minister to be removed from office: either a prime minister informs the Knesset that they are recusing themselves, or the government suspends the prime minister in a majority vote of three-quarters of cabinet ministers, and that decision is then upheld by a majority of 90 members of the Knesset.

The legislation adds that no court shall be empowered to hear a petition demanding the suspension of a prime minister, or make such a ruling.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a legal conference in Haifa on January 12, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

“The voters of the national camp headed by Benjamin Netanyahu voted for him as the one to determine policy,” Katz said in the Knesset plenum during the debate on the bill.

“They voted for his experience and his leadership as prime minister of Israel… The people and the representatives of the people are the ones who appoint the prime minister, and only they can change their choice,” continued the MK.

In the explanatory notes to his legislation, Katz wrote that the bill was a direct response to the possibility that Netanyahu might be suspended from office against his will, stating that such a decision would constitute “the nullification of the election results and the democratic process.”

Hadash MK Ofer Cassif of the opposition denounced the bill, saying, “In a democracy, the regime is not above the law, all the more so for the ruler,” and claiming that denying the attorney general this tool was “part of the fascist revolution, the overturning of the state to a full dictatorship.”

The Movement for Quality Government also strongly criticized the preliminary approval of the bill, saying it was a “personal and illegal law” and an attempt to “change the rules of the game during the game.”

Earlier this week, Baharav-Miara said she opposed the bill since it would sharply reduce the circumstances under which the suspension  of a prime minister could be ordered, and warned that the proposal would create a legal “black hole.”

Likud faction chair MK Ofir Katz, leads a Knesset House Committee hearing, February 5, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Her deputy, Gil Limon, wrote, “There is a difficulty in limiting the situations for suspension to only a lack of physical or mental fitness, while changing the existing law that recognizes other potential situations.”

Added Limon: “We believe that the combination of the bill’s components together could lead to absurd situations, in which a prime minister continues to serve in the role despite lacking the ability to do so.”

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