In U-turn, Netanyahu said to reject ‘extreme’ draft of High Court override bill

After brief meeting, coalition leaders, deeply divided on proposals aimed at limiting power of judicial branch, decide to continue discussions in coming days

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and then-cabinet secretary Avichai Mandelblit at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on July 5, 2015. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly walked back his support for a bill that would limit the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down Knesset laws, saying the proposal, in its current version, was “extreme.”

The meeting Sunday by coalition party chiefs to debate the controversial bill ended without resolution and the discussion will be continued in the coming days, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

The proposed bill would effectively downgrade High Court decisions on the unconstitutionality of Knesset legislation to mere recommendations. It has deeply divided coalition partners with a Likud minister on Sunday suggesting it could lead to early elections.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who objects to any tampering with the current relationship between Israel’s legislative and judiciary branches, also participated in the meeting to explain his opposition to the bill and to present alternative ideas.

Speaking later at the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said the earlier debate about the High Court override was “very important, very serious, and is being treated as such.”

“This kind of debate was held over 10 years ago, without result, and we want to reach balanced and correct solutions to responsibly deal with the challenges of the present and the future,” said Netanyahu.

Channel 10 television reported that senior coalition sources said that although previously supportive of the bill, during the meeting Netanyahu indicated that he felt its current version was “extreme.” According to the report, those close to Netanyahu denied the prime minister has backed away from the bill.

Before the meeting Public Security Ministry Gilad Erdan suggested early elections could be nigh if coalition leaders refused to support the bill.

Erdan, a leading figure in the Likud party led by Netanyahu, told Army Radio in an interview that there is a “serious problem,” and that “the balance between [the judiciary and legislative] authorities has been upset,” with the right of the public to elect its leaders to govern having been undermined by a series of High Court rulings over the past year.

“As a nationalist camp that was chosen many times to lead the country it is our duty to correct and… to make a change in this area, in the balance between ruling authorities. If there is a subject on which it is justified to go to elections, this is the subject,” Erdan told the radio station.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a Likud party conference in Lod on December 31, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“In recent years they [the High Court] have tied the hands of the government on many matters related to the state and defense, and it makes it very difficult to govern the country,” Erdan added. “Therefore I hope we will not compromise or be flexible and we will make the necessary change that must be made,” Erdan added.

Kulanu chairman Moshe Kahlon, the finance minister, is firmly against the supercession bill and has said repeatedly he would not lend his party’s votes to weakening the High Court.

Science Minister Ofir Akunis echoed Erdan and challenged Kahlon to go to early elections, boasting that the Likud party, of which he is also a member, would be the biggest winner in a vote.

“It can’t be that all the coalition compromises are detrimental to the Likud,” Akunis told Army Radio in an interview also before the meeting. “I suggest that Kahlon not threaten the Likud with elections. Let’s go to elections in July, it will only strengthen the Likud.”

Netanyahu backed the sweeping court supercession bill to downgrade the High Court after the court’s recent ruling blocking deportations of African migrants and its decisions that may have played a role in scuttling a deportation deal with Rwanda.

Kahlon has said that he would support a supercession clause limited to the narrow confines of a deportation bill, as he backs a more aggressive deportation policy for asylum seekers.

Speaking to Channel 10 earlier Sunday, Minister of Economy, Eli Cohen, also of the coalition Kulanu party, said “the High Court has forgotten the principle of separation of authorities, when time and again it harms government policy to go ahead and remove the migrants from Israel.”

Under the terms of its coalition agreement with Netanyahu, the 10-seat Kulanu party is not required to vote with the government on the bypass law, making it unlikely to pass.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a ceremony in southern Israel, April 12, 2018. (Flash90)

Netanyahu is guaranteed to have the support of coalition partner the nationalist-Orthodox Jewish Home party which has long sought to limit the High Court’s power to strike down Knesset legislation.

The government this week was seeking to clinch a final deal to deport tens of thousands of African migrants in Israel, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, to Uganda. It faces a court deadline that expires Sunday to either forcibly deport the African asylum seekers or allow the release of all those currently jailed for refusing deportation.

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