Justice Ministry, battle with High Court in focus as Netanyahu builds coalition

Justice Ministry, battle with High Court in focus as Netanyahu builds coalition

Reports indicate PM weighing two hardliners for justice minister, with plan to limit court’s ability to overturn Knesset laws, all in shadow of his impending graft indictments

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on February 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on February 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will on Thursday begin a series of negotiations as he starts to put together a coalition government for his fifth term in office, with an initial focus on the key Justice Ministry.

President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday officially tasked Netanyahu with assembling a coalition to govern the 21st Knesset with a plea to Israel’s leader to soothe social divides after a combative election campaign.

Netanyahu’s most likely option is a 65-seat coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties comprising Likud (35 seats), Shas (8), United Torah Judaism (8), Union of Right-Wing Parties (5), Yisrael Beytenu (5) and Kulanu (4).

Negotiations are likely to be fierce, with all those parties, barring Kulanu, indispensable for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with UTJ’s Meir Porush in the Knesset, on April 29, 2015, after the two parties signed a coalition agreement. To Netanyahu’s right is UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman. (Courtesy, Likud Party)

Initial speculation has focused on the Justice Ministry, with Netanyahu’s legal woes expected to be a major issue in the next term. The premier is facing indictment in three separate cases in the coming months, including one count of bribery, pending a hearing.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister, or seek to utilize existing immunity provisions for the same purpose. He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential support for an immunity move or for a so-called French Law that would shelter a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin during a Knesset vote on the budget, which coincided with police publishing recommendations that Netanyahu be indicted for bribery and breach of trust, February 13, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Wednesday, Hebrew media reports indicated that Netanyahu is leaning tpward appointing either Tourism Minister Yariv Levin from his Likud party or Union of Right-Wing Parties MK Bezalel Smotrich as justice minister. Channel 12 reported that “it was almost certain” Netanyahu would choose one of the two men.

Outgoing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also a believer in reforming Israel’s justice system, with its reputation as a liberal bastion, did not make the Knesset after her New Right party failed to cross the election threshold.

Both Levin and Smotrich have expressed support for clamping down on the Supreme Court and removing its ability to act as a check on the legislature — by denying it the right to strike down Knesset laws. Smotrich has also explicitly said he will seek to enact legislation to protect Netanyahu from indictment.

Levin, who serves as tourism minister in the outgoing government, is a political hawk and an advocate for weakening the powers of the court.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Smotrich, a co-founder of the right-wing NGO Regavim, which targets illegal construction by non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2015 and quickly became known for his uncompromising right-wing views and controversial remarks.

During his four years in the Knesset, he has made headlines for encouraging draft-dodging in protest of the IDF’s “radical feminist” agenda, for comparing the evacuation of an illegal settlement outpost to a “brutal rape,” and for claiming that “illiterate” Arabs are only granted university admission thanks to affirmative action. He has also called himself a “proud homophobe,” has called for segregated Jewish-Arab maternity wards in hospitals, and was involved in organizing an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem in response to the city’s annual Gay Pride parade.

Netanyahu is a suspect in three criminal probes, known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft indictments.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.

Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension at the discretion of the president.

Illustrative: Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman (left), Shas leader Aryeh Deri (center), and United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman at the Knesset. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Legal issues aside, Netanyahu is also expected to have a difficult time reconciling the demands of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, which both saw an increase in support, and Avigdor Liberman’s secularist Yisrael Beytenu party.

Liberman has vowed to hold his ground on religious and state issues in a coalition likely to be dominated by the religious right, particularly over the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox.

Once Netanyahu is done with all of that, he will face the tricky issue of meeting the demands for ministerial posts from his fellow Likud members, who will want a greater share of the pie after the party won 35 seats.

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