Ministers expected to okay bill reining in High Court despite coalition fray

PM won’t oppose legislation but current proposal lacks Knesset majority, with Kulanu accusing Jewish Home ‘extremists’ of pushing legislation to weaken rule of law

Raoul Wootliff is a former Times of Israel political correspondent and Daily Briefing podcast producer.

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2018. (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool)

Cabinet ministers were expected Sunday to authorize a controversial bill to curtail the powers of the High Court of Justice, despite coalition disagreements which appear to threaten the legislation’s path through the Knesset.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home said Sunday morning that the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation would hold a vote on the bill later in the day, rejecting a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to further postpone the ballot which he has already delayed for two weeks.

“We will vote,” she told Israel Radio. “It’s on the schedule. We are planning to hold the vote.”

But tempering expectations, Shaked conceded that the bill was far from sure to become law, calling Sunday’s meeting “a first stage in a long process.”

“We are talking about changing a Basic Law and no one intends to do this in an underhanded way. We want to begin the process today and then there will be a long public discourse in the Knesset,” she said.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked speaks at a conference hosted by the Makor Rishon newspaper and the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, March 11, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a group of ministers that votes on whether to grant 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 that the debate be pushed off 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.

Jewish Home officials, suspicious that Netanyahu was seeking to quietly torpedo the initiative, turned down the demand with leader Naftali Bennett threatening to hold up all coalition-sponsored legislation if the initiative didn’t come to a vote.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu said that he would have preferred to further delay the bill in order to reach agreement among all coalition parties, but would nonetheless allow the vote to take place and not use Likud’s veto to block it.

“The correct way to pass the supercession bill is by enlisting all the coalition factions. I wanted to delay it by a week in order to reach  agreement and to pass the bill with full coalition support,” he said, in an apparent attempt to deflect Jewish Home criticism at his initial hesitation.

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)

Even without Netanyahu’s opposition, the bill appears unlikely to progress due to objections from the coalition’s center-right Kulanu party.

Speaking to Israel Radio Sunday after Shaked, Kulanu’s Knesset faction chair MK Roy Folkman launched a fierce attack on Jewish Home for what he called “a political campaign to weaken the rule of law.”

“Those currently pushing the issue are the extreme margins of the coalition. I think that the public can feel secure in the fact they have have a party like Kulanu in the coalition,” he said.

“We will not allow the extremists from Jewish Home to dictate the direction of the government,” he vowed. “We will not allow the rule of law to be damaged.”

While the bill is expected gain a majority in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation without Kulanu’s support, the party still has the ability to block it from passing or even making it to the full plenum.

If Kulanu presents a formal petition against Sunday’s decision, the bill will need to face a full cabinet vote which can only be set by Netanyahu himself.

Alternatively, Kulanu could allow the bill to advance to the full Knesset but vote against it in the plenum, forcing it to be shelved for at least half a year.

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.

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