In U-turn, Netanyahu said to reassure ministers override clause has not been shelved

Days after telling Wall Street Journal he ‘threw out’ controversial bill, PM reportedly tells fuming cabinet behind closed doors that softened version of legislation could return

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 2, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 2, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly told members of his cabinet on Sunday that despite recent comments he made to international media, he has not fully backed away from passing some form of “override clause.”

In closed-door comments, Netanyahu reassured some ministers that he still supports a watered-down version of such legislation, but not an unlimited and all-encompassing bill as was initially proposed, according to a report Sunday by the Walla news site.

While Justice Minister Yariv Levin had originally floated the idea of allowing the Knesset to override decisions made by the High Court, the bill that was ultimately put forward would have allowed the Knesset to pass legislation that was immune from judicial review from the outset, which Hebrew media continued to refer to as an “override clause.”

That legislation has been frozen since March, when large-scale protests against the judicial overhaul forced Netanyahu to pause the legislative push and join the opposition for compromise talks, which have since broken down.

In his public comments at the start of Sunday’s meeting, Netanyahu did not mention anything about the government’s judicial overhaul efforts.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Thursday, Netanyahu said that he had thrown out the so-called “override clause” due to public opposition.

“The idea of an override clause, where the parliament, the Knesset, can override the decisions of the Supreme Court with a simple majority, I said, I threw that out… it’s out,” Netanyahu told the newspaper, adding that he is “attentive to the public pulse, and to what I think will pass muster.”

During the interview, Netanyahu specifically dismissed advancing an override clause in any form, even one demanding a supermajority of lawmakers in order to override a court decision. His interviewer asked him whether the override clause “might come back with the supermajority.” Netanyahu responded categorically: “No, I said it’s out.”

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni chairs a Knesset Finance Committee on May 15, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s comments to the US newspaper were met with anger from some members of his religious-right wing coalition, who fully back legislating an override clause and some of whom even demanded such a move as part of the coalition agreements.

According to Walla, United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni told Netanyahu on Sunday that his, Gafni’s, lack of reaction to the Wall Street Journal interview “should not be interpreted as silence… don’t think that we are quiet and agree with the fact that there will be no override clause.”

Passing an override clause was a coalition demand of the Haredi parties, which have long been angered by the High Court’s rulings on certain issues relating to their community, including repeatedly striking down legislation that exempts them from military service.

Other members of the coalition reacted vocally to Netanyahu’s comments last week on plans to drop entirely the override clause.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right coalition partner, accused Netanyahu of “surrendering” to mass protests against the planned judicial shakeup, saying that “we were elected to bring governance and change; reform is a cornerstone of that promise.”

Likud’s Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan said in an interview Friday that she was “correcting a bit what Netanyahu said,” adding that the override clause “is not completely off the table” but perhaps will be amended to require a supermajority to overturn court rulings — despite Netanyahu also ruling that option out in his comments.

Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan at a Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, December 8, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Likud’s Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar said in an interview Thursday that “my assessment is that the override clause will come in the future.”

“Netanyahu’s intention is mainly to calm things down, to say ‘we want to promote reform, but at a [moderate] pace and not in a blitz,’” Zohar added. “The way we will advance it will unequivocally be different from what we tried to do at the beginning of the Knesset term.”

Netanyahu’s comments to the Journal came after outgoing US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said he did not believe the government will unilaterally advance the entirety of its legislative package to overhaul the judiciary.

“I do not believe we’re going to wake up and they’re going to do all of this legislation unilaterally… My hope is that they will not do everything unilaterally because I think the reaction here would be quite dramatic,” Nides said last week during a virtual event organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

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