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Likud again delays bill to rein in High Court, raising Jewish Home’s ire

Bennett vows to force a vote Sunday on legislation to weaken the court, demands PM’s support ‘as promised to the Israeli public’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017, in the Knesset. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A new coalition crisis appeared to be brewing Thursday night between the ruling Likud party and its rightist coalition partner Jewish Home, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for another week’s delay to a key ministerial debate over a Jewish Home bill that would curtail the powers of the High Court of Justice.

The legislation – three separate bills that would be merged later in the legislative process – seeks to severely limit the court’s ability to strike down Knesset legislation as “unconstitutional.” In the short term, it would enable lawmakers to change the law in ways that would allow Israel to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, a step the court has prevented. More generally, the Israeli right has long criticized the High Court for its sweeping powers, and sought to make the Knesset more powerful in its stead.

Two weeks ago, Likud agreed to a Jewish Home demand to allow the so-called “supercession” or “override” bill to be debated at the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a group of ministers that votes on granting government support to legislation.

But on Thursday, apparently acting on Netanyahu’s instructions, Likud’s top member in the committee, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, asked to push off the debate by a week. Likud officials explained that the prime minister was too busy over the past week with international discussions on Iran and Syria to deal with the bill.

“Over the past week, Netanyahu has been dealing with issues of utmost significance for national security, and therefore Minister Yariv Levin asked for a single week’s delay,” the party said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, November 1, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

But Jewish Home officials, suspicious that Netanyahu may be seeking to quietly torpedo the initiative, turned down the demand.

“The override clause is necessary to allow governments to govern and preserve the [public’s] faith in the [high] court,” Jewish Home’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, said in a statement Thursday evening.

“It’s also a vital tool for fighting terror and for deporting illegal infiltrators from Israel,” he added in a post on Twitter, using a term favored on the right for the asylum seekers. “The time has come to decide. Therefore, this Sunday, we will raise the override bill for a vote [in the cabinet committee], and we expect the prime minister’s support, which he committed to with his signature and which he promised to the Israeli public.”

Bennett last Tuesday threatened to hold up all coalition-sponsored legislation if the initiative didn’t come up for a vote.

Likud and Jewish Home agreed to advance an override bill in the parties’ coalition agreement, signed in 2015.

The legislation comes amid efforts by right-wing lawmakers to limit the court’s power after judges have repeatedly stymied the government’s efforts to imprison and deport African asylum seekers from the country without examining their asylum requests or, according to the court, sufficiently ascertaining the safety of the countries to which they were to be deported, as Israel is required to do under international treaties and Israeli law.

The clash led right-wing politicians to renew efforts to push legislation limiting the court’s ability to overturn Knesset legislation, and thus allow the coalition to pass a law that would legalize the deportations.

The bill proposed by the Jewish Home would allow the Knesset to re-vote on a law disqualified by the High Court, and thereby to pass the law despite the court’s ruling against its constitutionality.

During a meeting on Sunday with Netanyahu, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned against setting a bar for such a vote at a majority of parliament — 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset — as demanded by Jewish Home. Any ruling coalition in Israel’s parliamentary system is almost certain to be able to muster such a majority.

Such a low bar was a “danger to democracy and to the court,” she warned, according to reports.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, left, with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, at a faction meeting of their Jewish Home party in the Knesset, February 05, 2018. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The Jewish Home party has long campaigned for clipping the wings of what it regards as the overly liberal Supreme Court, and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) has succeeded in having several conservative candidates appointed to the top bench over the past three years.

Thursday’s delay request is the second time Likud has asked for more time.

On Sunday, Bennett and Shaked agreed to delay the cabinet committee vote by a week in order to allow the Netanyahu-Hayut meeting to take place.

But in an agitated statement, Jewish Home said at the time: “We agreed last night to the prime minister’s request to delay the vote on the supercession clause by one week in order to allow for a deeper discussion and examination of the issue. But the Jewish Home faction is determined to pass the supercession clause, the most significant constitutional change in 25 years.”

The coalition Kulanu party has objected to a sweeping supercession law, but has said it will support a bill to override the court solely on the question of the migrants.

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