Knesset rejects bid to probe judges’ conflict of interest, despite Likud support
Contentious proposal causes new Netanyahu-Gantz crisis

Knesset rejects bid to probe judges’ conflict of interest, despite Likud support

Failed proposal by opposition’s Yamina set off coalition fight, with Blue and White saying move would have been ‘declaration of war against Israeli democracy’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

A contentious proposal to form a parliamentary committee to investigate Supreme Court Justices’ alleged conflicts of interest was rejected by the Knesset Wednesday, after deepening a rift within the unity coalition.

Forty-three lawmakers voted in favor of Yamina MK Bezalel Smotrich’s proposal, while 54 voted against it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a number of Likud lawmakers were not present for the vote on the proposal, despite the party’s backing for it. Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party strongly opposed the measure, was also absent, as he is in quarantine after exposure to a COVID-19 carrier. Gantz later castigated Likud for forcing the Knesset to devote time to what he called “political games.”

Under the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition deal, the sides are not supposed to promote contentious legislation without their joint consent, and the Likud-backed effort to push through the proposal to investigate the justices, bitterly opposed by Blue and White, could potentially have led to the collapse of the government a mere two months after it was established.

Earlier Wednesday, the Likud threw its support behind the opposition bid, sparking another crisis with its top coalition partner, Blue and White. Coalition whip MK Miki Zohar said on Twitter that the ruling party would back the proposal.

But Yamina, in a statement after the proposal fell in the plenum, accused Netanyahu and Shas leader Aryeh Deri of sabotaging the move, noting that 13 lawmakers from Likud and Shas were absent from the vote.

“Don’t tell us anymore that you’re really in favor of reforming the legal system,” it scoffed in a statement directed at Netanyahu and Deri.

Netanyahu and Likud have intensified their rhetoric against the justice system over the past few months as the premier has gone on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. The prime minister denies the charges against him, alleging an “attempted coup” involving the opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution.

Many on the right have been critical of the top court and issued calls in recent years to rein in its power with Knesset legislation.

The centrist Blue and White party has repeatedly vowed to protect the judiciary, and Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn said he wouldn’t allow the commission of inquiry to be formed.

“Voting for the formation of a commission of inquiry for judges is a declaration of war on Israeli democracy,” Blue and White said in a statement before the vote.

New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

Nissenkorn tweeted earlier: “Israel has a million unemployed people and every day more than 1,000 new coronavirus patients are diagnosed, but for some, the most urgent thing right now is to destroy the rule of law.”

Sources in the party were quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying that if Likud voted in favor of the move, Blue and White would support creating a commission of inquiry into the so-called submarine scandal.

That is a reference to a wide-scale corruption case in which Netanyahu has been ruled out as a suspect, though his opponents claim that new evidence reported last year justify the case being reopened.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the proposal to form a commission of inquiry into the scandal, known as Case 3000, would be raised next week.

After campaigning to replace Netanyahu for three elections, Gantz decided in April to join forces with the premier. Under their power-sharing coalition deal, Gantz will replace Netanyahu as prime minister in November 2021. It stipulates that on most government matters, decisions will be made with both Likud’s and Blue and White’s approval.

The current dispute, like several other public feuds between the parties, threatened to bring an early end to the political partnership and see fresh elections called, which would be the fourth since April 2019, with sources reportedly saying Netanyahu is looking for a pretext to dissolve the government.

The developments followed a series of investigative reports by Maariv reporter Kalman Libeskind throughout May and June, arguing that various Supreme Court judges had overseen cases in which they appeared to be in conflict of interest.

Justices, including Chief Justice Esther Hayut as well as Uzi Vogelman, Meir Mazuz and others, allegedly removed certain people and issues from the list of their conflicts of interest, oversaw a case related to that person or matter, and then added them back to the list.

A High Court of Justice hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

The judges rejected the accusations, saying the issues in question had been struck from the list for valid reasons.

Following those reports, the judiciary decided last month to make public the full list of conflicts of interest for Supreme Court judges.

After that release, the Haaretz daily reported more instances in which the justices officiated in cases where they appeared to be in conflict of interest.

Smotrich and his party on Tuesday filed a Knesset motion to create a state commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.

Though Yamina ended up not joining the coalition, accusing Netanyahu of disregarding it in coalition talks and not offering it sufficient ministerial portfolios, the right-wing party remains supportive of Netanyahu’s push for reforms in the justice system.

It argues that the Supreme Court judges are liberal, activist and willing to interpret the written law in a way that justifies intervening in the Knesset’s work.

“Over the last few weeks, a series of investigative reports was published, revealing an unacceptable situation of severe conflicts of interest among Supreme Court judges, who sit in cases involving sides or lawyers with connections to them,” the Yamina motion said.

“What is even more concerning than the reports is the outrageous responses by the judges, which attest to lack of understanding, not to say denial, of how problematic it is and to unwillingness to fix it.”

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