MKs advance bill to prevent High Court ordering a PM recused for conflict of interest

Legislation barring premier from being required to leave office, except in cases of mental or physical incapacitation, slammed as ‘tailored exactly to Netanyahu’s measurements’

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a joint press conference with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni at Chigi Palace government offices in Rome, Friday, March 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a joint press conference with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni at Chigi Palace government offices in Rome, Friday, March 10, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Lawmakers on Monday advanced a government-backed bill that would block the High Court from ordering a prime minister to recuse themselves from activities even in cases of a conflict of interest.

The legislation, which would only allow the court to order a prime minister’s removal in cases of mental or physical incapacity, easily cleared its first vote 61-51 along party lines, and will now head to committee before coming back to the plenum for two final readings.

Sponsored by Likud faction chairman MK Ofir Katz, the bill is widely seen as a reaction to fears that the High Court of Justice could force party chair and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to step down, due to the potential conflict of interest created by him overseeing his coalition’s plan to remake the judiciary while he is himself on trial for corruption.

Netanyahu is already barred from dealing directly with the controversial overhaul. Reports in February, since strongly denied, indicated that Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara was weighing whether to order the premier to step aside should he deal publicly with the overhaul.

The government’s larger overhaul plan, if passed, could give the government control of new Supreme Court justice appointments, impacting a potential appeal of the verdict in his ongoing trial.

Katz’s amendment to the quasi-constitutional Basic Law: The Government, which gained government backing in February and advanced through its committee preparation earlier on Monday, clarifies that there would be only two ways for a prime minister to be removed from office: either a prime minister informs the Knesset that they are recusing themselves, or the government suspends the prime minister in a majority vote of three-quarters of cabinet ministers, and that decision is then upheld by a majority of 90 members of the Knesset.

The legislation adds that no court shall be empowered to hear a petition demanding the suspension of a prime minister, or make such a ruling.

Speaking in the plenum ahead of the vote, Katz assailed the opposition and judiciary for “trying to seize control through cheating,” in reference to any attempts to push Netanyahu from office.

Likud faction chair MK Ofir Katz, leads a Knesset House Committee hearing, February 5, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Touching specifically on Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, a common target for the hard-right coalition, Katz said that the bill to block forced recusal is important because it “protects democracy” by keeping elected officials in office.

“She doesn’t have the authority to change the results of the election, she doesn’t have the authority to throw votes in the trash,” the Likud MK said.

Last month, Baharav-Miara’s office said it opposed the bill since it would sharply reduce the circumstances under which the suspension of a prime minister could be ordered, and warned that the proposal would create a legal “black hole.”

“There is a difficulty in limiting the situations for suspension to only a lack of physical or mental fitness, while changing the existing law that recognizes other potential situations,” wrote Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon. “We believe that the combination of the bill’s components together could lead to absurd situations, in which a prime minister continues to serve in the role despite lacking the ability to do so.”

Proponents of the changes say they are designed to protect the will of voters from court overreach, but critics say it will run roughshod over regulations intended to keep public servants from using their authority for personal gain.

The coalition is pushing a second bill to block the court from reviewing ministerial appointments, which will pave the way for Shas leader Aryeh Deri to return to the cabinet.

That bill is expected to come for a vote on Tuesday.

In January, Baharav-Miara forced Netanyahu to fire Deri, a longtime ally, in line with a High Court ruling that Deri’s ministerial appointments were grossly unreasonable, in light of his financial crime convictions.

Attorney General Gali Baharav Miara, right, makes her way to a government meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 29, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the debate Monday, Yesh Atid lawmaker Yorai Lahav Hertzano accused the coalition of pushing legislation “tailored exactly to Netanyahu’s measurements.”

He was backed by Yisrael Beytenu MK Hamad Amar, one of the Knesset’s few Druze lawmakers, who said the coalition was passing bills designed to benefit only themselves in cases where they did not want to comply with existing rules.

“The purpose of these 64 MKs is to legislate personal laws,” Amar told the plenum.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which had petitioned the court for Netanyahu’s recusal in February, charged that the sole purpose of the legislation was to allow the premier “to escape having to face justice.”

“Again we see how Netanyahu enslaves the Knesset for his personal needs, and wastes the time of Knesset members for a personalized, corrupt bill,” the group said in a statement late Monday.

Netanyahu is on trial in three separate cases and facing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly taking expensive gifts from benefactors and attempting to arrange secret deals with media companies for more positive coverage. He denies wrongdoing.

In addition to advancing a shield against forced recusal, the coalition is set to bring a second controversial bill to the Knesset floor on Monday night that would empower lawmakers to insert language into legislation placing it outside the court’s purview.

The pre-emptive override measure is a core pillar of the coalition’s reform plan, which has sparked massive protests in Israel.

The Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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