Chief rabbi urges compromise: 'The important thing' is unity

Gallant and two other ministers say government must respect High Court rulings

Netanyahu has been noncommittal when asked if he’d adhere to potential decision striking down law; PM, at cabinet meeting, doesn’t mention Tuesday’s reasonableness hearing

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Three government ministers, including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, stressed Sunday that High Court of Justice rulings must be respected, two days before a highly anticipated hearing on the first piece of legislation passed in the coalition’s judicial overhaul.

The pledges to heed decisions by the top court followed Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana’s speech last week suggesting the coalition may not do so, in which he warned that a court ruling nullifying the reasonableness law could “plunge us into the abyss” and vowed that the Knesset “won’t submissively allow itself to be trampled.”

Netanyahu later posted the remarks by Ohana, a Likud member, on social media. The premier has previously been noncommittal when pressed directly if he will accept a High Court judgment invalidating the legislation.

As they arrived for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office, ministers were asked by reporters if they believe High Court decisions should be adhered to.

“My position is clear. The State of Israel is a democratic country with a rule of law. I will honor any High Court ruling,” said Gallant, who was been urging compromise on the overhaul amid concerns over the negative impact of IDF reservist protests on military readiness.

That sentiment was echoed by Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel, also of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party: “Of course.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaches for apple and honey at a cabinet meeting ahead of Rosh Hashanah at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party took a similar tone. “Yes, unequivocally,” he responded when asked if High Court rulings need to be followed.

But other ministers were less committal, with Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf saying if the court strikes down the law, “we’ll decide together.”

“I hope the court will hear what the government is requesting,” said Goldknopf, who heads the Haredi United Torah Judaism faction.

Interior and Health minister Moshe Arbel arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023 (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, part of Likud’s far-right flank, told the journalists that their question should instead be directed at the High Court judges.

“Ask them if they intend to recognize democracy in the State of Israel. That’s the proper question,” he said.

Likud Minister May Golan later went further, saying explicitly that “in this case, the High Court ruling does not need to be respected.”

“If the High Court does this… there is no reason for elections in the State of Israel,” Golan claimed during an interview with the Knesset Channel.

In March, Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the architect of the judicial overhaul, said that were the justices to strike down his planned legislation remaking the Judicial Selection Committee, he would not accept their ruling. The intervention of the court, should it step in to strike down the legislation, “would be completely unjustified. In my opinion, it would mark the crossing of every red line. We certainly won’t accept it,” warned Levin.

Gallant, Gamliel and Arbel were hailed by opposition figures for affirming that court rulings should be respected.

“It’s unbelievable that there is even a debate about whether the government will or will not obey a High Court decision,” Lapid wrote on the social media platform X.

National Unity party chief Benny Gantz praised the trio for “saying the obvious” while lamenting that “we’ve reached a time when such a remark is so necessary and important.”

Gantz also urged all coalition members to declare that “it’s a duty to respect a decision of the High Court and prevent a dangerous constitutional crisis.”

Netanyahu did not address the upcoming hearing in his public comments opening the meeting, saying he would seek “as much as possible” broad public support for further changes to the judicial system. He also repeated his condemnation from Saturday evening of a protest leader who seemingly referred to far-right elements in the government as “Nazis” before later apologizing, again accusing her of “incitement.”

Kaplan Force, one of the protest groups spearheading the ongoing demonstrations, fired back at Netanyahu by saying it was the prime minister who was “inciting” against them.

A photo provided by an anti-judicial overhaul activist shows thousands protesting in Tel Aviv, September 9, 2023. (Gilad Furst)

Meanwhile, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef appealed to the coalition and opposition “to make all the compromises needed; the important thing is that there be peace among the people of Israel.”

“I cannot interfere in politics, but peace and unity is not politics,” Yosef, who has previously endorsed a proposal backed by ultra-Orthodox parties to allow the Knesset to overrule High Court decisions, said Saturday evening during a ceremony at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem.

Proponents of the government’s plans to weaken the judiciary have argued the High Court lacks the authority to strike down the legislation, as it was passed as a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, none of which the justices have ever nullified. The process for legislating Basic Laws is the same as other bills in Israel’s unicameral parliament, with no special majority needed.

In a briefing filed Friday ahead of the September 12 hearing, the government argued the court does not have the statutory authority to rule against a Basic Law and that any such verdict would be based on unlegislated and unclear “basic principles.” Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded by casting doubt on the status of the recent legislation as an actual Basic Law.

The “reasonableness” law, passed in the Knesset in July, prohibits the courts from reviewing government action using the judicial standard of reasonableness, whereby it can determine that a decision was invalid because it was made without properly assessing key considerations, or while using improper considerations.

Opponents of the law argue that it could potentially undermine the independence of senior law enforcement agencies, since without the reasonableness standard, it will be difficult to challenge arbitrary dismissals of officials.

Illustrative: Supreme court justices arrive for a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers and coalition MKs have argued that the law is necessary to stop the High Court from asserting its own worldview on government decisions and actions, and have said that the dismissal of senior law enforcement officials will still be subject to other tools in administrative law.

The law is the only component of the coalition’s broader judicial overhaul program that has been passed by the Knesset so far. Like other parts of the radical reform agenda, it has faced massive opposition from protest groups and opposition parties.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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