Knesset set to shield Netanyahu against forced removal from office

Bill set for final readings blocks court’s ability to compel a prime minister to take leave of absence except for medical reasons

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads his cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads his cabinet meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 19, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Despite concerns raised by the Attorney General’s Office, the Knesset was expected to pass Wednesday or Thursday a law that would protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from any potential court order to recuse himself.

Sponsored by a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and backed by the government, the bill blocks the High Court of Justice or attorney general from ordering a prime minister to take a leave of absence.

Once passed into law, there will only be two ways for a prime minister to take a leave of absence: the premier can decide to recuse himself, or a three-quarters majority vote of government ministers can push a premier to take a temporary leave, but only for mental or physical health reasons.

In January, the High Court agreed to review a petition from a good governance group urging the judiciary to force the premier into a leave of absence, claiming that his leading a coalition pushing to overhaul the judiciary creates a conflict of interest, in violation of his 2020 agreement to stay away from judicial or legal policy in light of his ongoing corruption trial.

Referring to Netanyahu’s legal concerns, Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon told the special Knesset committee preparing the legislation on Monday that the bill stood to benefit “an individual’s personal situation in connection with legal proceedings.”

Limon added that the Attorney General’s Office opposes the bill, in line with its original opinion issued in February.

Likud MK Ofir Katz, Chairman of a special committee leads a discussion at the Knesset, March 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier on Wednesday, the Knesset’s House Committee gave the bill an exemption from waiting until next week to be brought for its second and third, final, floor votes. House Committee chair MK Ofir Katz is also the bill’s primary sponsor.

The opposition is poised to stage a fiery filibuster against the bill, which many of its members say is being tailored to save Netanyahu from potential legal trouble.

However, Katz said that opposition and coalition representatives had already come to an agreement to limit debate on the recusal bill to a maximum of 16 hours, meaning the opposition’s stalling will prove to be largely symbolic and the bill will likely pass on Thursday morning or afternoon.

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 personally with the overhaul.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at Haifa University, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

A core element of the government’s overhaul plan that the coalition plans to pass into law next week would give the government control over key Supreme Court justice appointments, which could impact a potential appeal of the verdict in Netanyahu’s ongoing trial.

A second pillar of the plan would let the Knesset block court oversight over most laws, and give lawmakers the ability to override court decisions to strike down laws.

Limon said that taken as a whole, “what we see before our eyes is an accumulation of extremely disturbing pieces of legislation, which are being promoted very quickly.”

Touching specifically on Baharav-Miara, a common target for the hard-right coalition, Katz said earlier this month that the bill to block forced removal 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 then.

Katz reiterated his position on Tuesday, saying it protects “the will of the voter,” as the special Knesset committee that he also leads approved the bill for its final floor votes.

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.”

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon (center) speaks at a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on January 16, 2023. (Dani Shem-Tov/Knesset)

“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 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.

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