Gantz says courts should be above political system, drawing right-wing ire

Gantz says courts should be above political system, drawing right-wing ire

Netanyahu, Likud ministers, Yamina party say Gantz ‘misunderstands’ democracy after he warns of danger to country if High Court’s powers are curtailed

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan on February 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan on February 19, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz was attacked by right-wing politicians Tuesday after saying he believed the courts should be above the political system and warned of serious danger to Israeli democracy if the situation is reversed.

“We are facing a great danger to the institutions of democracy and rule of law in Israel,” he told 103FM Radio.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many right-wing lawmakers who support him have sought legislation to limit the powers of the High Court of Justice, angry that the court has repeatedly struck down legislative efforts by the right that it deemed to be illegal.

Netanyahu and his allies have also railed repeatedly against the attorney general and prosecution and sought to portray them as corrupt and politicized due to the investigations and indictment of the premier in three criminal cases.

“Changes to the balance between the High Court of Justice and the Knesset should be done responsibly… What determines things is the law, and the judicial system rules according to that. It’s good that it is above the political system,” said Gantz.

He added: “The political system must be reined in, and I lack the words to describe what will happen here if the political system is stronger than the judicial system. It will be a disaster… There — I, as someone who wants to be prime minister, relinquish that power.”

In tweets on Monday, Gantz also likened Netanyahu’s efforts for constitutional reform to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Netanyahu, in a tweet, said Tuesday evening: “I’m not sure Gantz understands what democracy is.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana of Likud also said Tuesday Gantz’s comments showed “a misunderstanding of the foundations of democracy” and said his proposal would lead to “the rule of clerks and jurists.”

Justice Minister Amir Ohana speaks at the Knesset on September 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Yamina party said Gantz was “suggesting turning Israel into a dictatorship ruled by the High Court and entirely erasing the separation of powers enshrined in a democratic nation.”

It said he “should remove his candidacy for prime minister. According to his approach, his post would be worthless.”

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, another key Netanyahu ally, said “Gantz doesn’t know what democracy is. Democracy is the rule of the people and not the rule of the attorney general and the state prosecution. The danger here is policy dictated by the whims of unelected jurists who will do with the state what they will.”

Recent years have seen repeated legislative efforts to curtail the powers of the High Court, and to give the Knesset the ability to overturn court decisions that disqualified Knesset legislation as unconstitutional. But the attempts to pass such a bill have been stopped by ongoing disagreements between parties.

After the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu unsuccessfully worked to form a right-wing government with allied parties. Hebrew media reports at the time said Netanyahu’s Likud party had made backing passage of a so-called override clause for the High Court a condition to joining the coalition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a Likud party event in Lod, February 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The passage of such a clause would mark what has been called the greatest constitutional change in Israeli history, with vast potential impact on the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy, denying the courts the capacity to protect Israeli minorities and uphold core human rights.

It would also, not incidentally, mean the High Court could not reverse Knesset-approved immunity for Netanyahu — which was on the table at the time, though it has now been ruled out. Netanyahu’s trial will begin on March 17, two weeks after the election on Monday.

Next week’s election is the third in under a year, after both Netanyahu and Gantz failed to form a coalition.

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