The Knesset passed into law a bill that would protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from a court order to recuse himself, in an early Thursday morning final vote of 61 Knesset members in favor and 47 against.
The bill passed its second and third (final) readings following hours-long, heated discussions in the plenum that stretched into the early morning.
The opposition had filed numerous objections to the bill, which was fast-tracked in Knesset’s House Committee, and promised to stage a fiery filibuster against the legislation, seen as being “tailored” to save Netanyahu from potential legal trouble. The stalling proved to be largely symbolic, as the bill’s sponsor, Likud faction chairman MK Ofir Katz, agreed with the opposition to limit debate on the recusal bill to a maximum of 16 hours. Deliberations began Wednesday night, and the law passed around 6 a.m. Thursday.
The legislation explicitly blocks the top court from ordering a prime minister to take a leave of absence, and is widely seen as a reaction to fears that the High Court of Justice could force Netanyahu to step down, due to the potential conflict of interest created by him overseeing his coalition’s bid to dramatically overhaul the judiciary while he is himself on trial for multiple corruption charges.
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.
According to the recusal law, only a three-quarters majority vote of government ministers or MKs can compel a premier to take a temporary leave, and then, only for mental or physical health reasons.
Katz defended the bill, saying that it would bring “stability” by making it harder for a premier to be removed against his will.
Likud MKs David Bitan and David Amsalem skipped the vote in protest at the coalition’s failure to advance a bill removing VAT from drugs to treat cancer. Shas’s Moshe Abutbul was absent.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid blasted the passage of the law, as well as coalition members that, “like thieves in the night, passed an obscene and corrupt personal law against an unfounded rumor about recusal.”
“The citizens of Israel know — just before the [Passover] holiday, while the cost of living is soaring — that once again, Netanyahu only cares about himself,” said Lapid.
MK Avigdor Liberman said his Yisrael Beytenu party will submit a petition to the High Court for the law to be overturned: “We will not allow the State of Israel to become a Netanyahu monarchy.”
Labor leader Merav Michaeli decried “a shameful and disgraceful law whose entire purpose is to prevent Netanyahu from being sent to prison,” adding that “this is our second war of independence, and we must win it.”
Netanyahu has been barred from dealing directly with the controversial overhaul plan due to a 2020 agreement. 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 judicial overhaul, which — 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 last week, 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.
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.
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.
In addition, the coalition is also pursuing a bill that will bring most judicial appointments under political control, and another that would empower lawmakers to insert language into legislation placing it outside the court’s purview.
The preemptive override measure is a core pillar of the coalition’s judicial overhaul plan, which has sparked massive protests in Israel.