Coalition heads: Court hearing on PM’s fitness for office equivalent to military coup

Heads of factions that back government rail at High Court after Netanyahu told to respond to petition seeking his ouster for allegedly breaching conflict of interest arrangement

Coalition party leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Courtesy: Likud)
Coalition party leaders meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, January 22, 2023. (Courtesy: Likud)

Coalition leaders on Saturday railed at the High Court of Justice for hearing a petition seeking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be declared unfit for office, claiming that the court even deliberating such a possibility was tantamount to a military coup.

On Friday, the court gave Netanyahu a month to respond to an appeal filed a day earlier by the Movement for Quality Government, which argues he is in breach of a conflict of interest arrangement prohibiting him from involvement in affairs that could affect his ongoing corruption trial. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was also given until March 12 to present her position.

The group specifically cites legislation the government is pushing to drastically curb the High Court’s ability to strike down laws and give politicians full control over judicial picks, parts of which are scheduled to come up for an initial vote on Monday.

“This is an illegal attempt to oust a serving prime minister, which is no different than a military coup,” a statement from the coalition chiefs said, referring to the hearing. “No judicial authority, including the High Court, has even a shred of authority for such action. Only the nation will decide the prime minister and only the nation, through its representatives in the Knesset, will decide whether to end his tenure.”

“The nation and its representatives will never accept a judicial deliberation on the possibility of a coup,” it added.

The statement was issued in the name of all faction heads in Netanyahu’s coalition — which includes his Likud party, two ultra-Orthodox parties and three far-right parties — with the exception of the premier himself. Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the No. 2 in Likud, signed instead of Netanyahu.

Coalition leaders issued a similar statement last month after some media reports said Baharav-Miara was considering ordering Netanyahu to take a leave of absence. She later denied ever weighing such a move.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks at Tel Aviv University, September 28, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Responding to Saturday’s statement, the Movement for Quality Government blasted the coalition heads. “Some of them are convicted criminals who don’t recognize the rule of law,” the group said, in an apparent reference to Shas chief Aryeh Deri and far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who both have been convicted of criminal offenses.

The group insisted the High Court does have the authority to rule that Netanyahu is no longer fit to serve as premier, noting its disqualification of Deri’s appointment as minister last month, and charged that the prime minister “is not fit democratically to fulfill his role.”

“He is in a sharp conflict of interests, both personally and institutionally, and his actions… testify to the need to disqualify him immediately,” it added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid also hit out at the coalition.

“Twenty-four hours after a terrible terror attack that took the lives of two children and another man and after further [rocket] fire toward southern residents from the Gaza Strip, what does the detached coalition choose to deal with? The legal problems of the prime minister,” Lapid said. “Because they only look out for themselves and their personal interests.”

“I suggest the coalition leaders immediately stop the crazy legislation and start dealing with the State of Israel,” he added.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid attends a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government and its proposed judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Under the 2020 conflict of interest agreement, drawn up by then-attorney general Avichai Mandelblit, Netanyahu cannot be involved in any matters that affect witnesses or other defendants in the trial, or in legislation that would impact the legal proceedings against him.

He also cannot intervene in any issues related to the status of several top police and prosecution officials, in several fields under the responsibility of the Communications Ministry, or in the Judicial Appointments Committee, which appoints judges to the Jerusalem District Court — where his trial is being conducted — and to the Supreme Court, which would hear any appeals in the case.

In its Thursday petition, the Movement for Quality Government acknowledged that the court has ruled against taking such a drastic step in the past. However, given the sweeping proposals the government is now advancing to significantly curb the power of the judiciary, the need for Netanyahu to take a leave of absence has become more urgent, it asserted.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases on charges of fraud and breach of trust, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and claims without evidence that the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media and left-wing rivals.

Netanyahu’s new government is in the midst of pushing contentious legislation that will seriously weaken the judiciary. The overhaul proposed by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would drastically limit the High Court of Justice’s power of judicial review of legislation; allow the Knesset to re-legislate laws if the court strikes them down; give the government control over judicial appointments; and turn ministry legal advisers into political appointees while making their counsel non-binding.

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