ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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Opposition MK: 'You're destroying democracy'

Bill to shield Netanyahu from recusal cleared for plenum vote after fiery debate

Special Knesset panel advances bid to prevent PM being forced aside over conflict of interest; opposition says bill would place PM ‘above the law’; 1st reading set for later Monday

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 5, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

A government-backed bill to prevent the High Court of Justice from having the power to suspend the prime minister from office was cleared Monday for its first reading in the Knesset plenum, following a stormy session in a special committee set up to debate the legislation.

After the 9-6 committee vote, the plenum vote was expected later in the day. The bill would then require two more readings to pass into law.

The piece of legislation, which passed its preliminary plenum vote earlier this month, was proposed as a reaction to a decision by the High Court last month to hear a petition demanding that 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 alleged corruption.

Netanyahu has signed a conflict of interest agreement barring him from dealing with matters that could affect the outcome of his trial. Media reports — since vehemently denied — have previously indicated Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was holding discussions on possibly forcing Netanyahu to take a leave of absence if he deals publicly with the legal shakeup, which could impact the identity of the justices who end up hearing a potential appeal to the Supreme Court.

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.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara attends a conference at Haifa University on December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Katz’s bill 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 due to lack of physical or mental fitness, in a majority vote of three-quarters of cabinet ministers, with that decision 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.

The Knesset’s legal office has reportedly decided that Netanyahu can take part in Monday’s plenum vote, despite concerns about a conflict of interest.

In Monday’s committee session, Katz agreed to make minor adjustments to the bill’s text, but not to the core arguments made by the opposition members.

A session of a special Knesset committee debating a law limiting the option of a prime minister’s recusal, in Jerusalem, March 13, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

“You are passing a law that says the prime minister is above the law,” charged Yesh Atid MK Orna Barbivai. “Even if he is corrupt, the court won’t be able to discuss his offense and recuse him. [The premier] would be able to do whatever he wants.”

Fellow Yesh Atid MK Yorai Lahav-Hertzano said: “This is a personal law tailored to the needs of Benjamin Netanyahu, who signed a conflict of interest agreement and is now trying to extricate himself from it. This [bill] is based on one man’s paranoia, causing our Basic Laws to be changed like playdough.”

Katz, the bill’s author and the committee chairman, said: “What we’re doing here today is preserving democracy, we won’t let a judicial official in the State of Israel carry out a leadership coup. What Israeli citizens decided won’t be overturned.”

Labor MK Efrat Rayten responded: “You’re destroying democracy.”

Likud MK Ofir Katz chairs a session of a special Knesset committee debating a law limiting the option of a prime minister’s recusal, in Jerusalem, March 13, 2023. (Noam Moskowitz/Knesset)

Last month, 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.”

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.”

“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,” added Limon.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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