Ministers pan court review of recusal law: ‘A discussion on nixing election results’

As justices deliberate legislation shielding prime minister, Justice Minister Levin and others argue that even holding a hearing on the matter is illegitimate

Likud's Yariv Levin (L) and far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich at a conference outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on October 30, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud's Yariv Levin (L) and far-right Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich at a conference outside the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on October 30, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coalition ministers slammed the High Court of Justice on Thursday as it held a hearing on legislation passed in March protecting the prime minister from being forced out of office, saying the justices were undermining the country’s democracy merely by agreeing to review the matter.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin argued in a statement that the hearing on petitions against the government’s recusal law “is de facto a discussion of whether to cancel the election results.” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called the court session “illegitimate” while his fellow far-right Religious Zionism party member MK Simcha Rothman labeled the hearing “an extreme act.”

Anti-government protesters hit back, accusing Levin of mob-like behavior. Four people were arrested during a demonstration near Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence.

The controversial legislation — an amendment to a quasi-constitutional Basic Law — prevents prime ministers from being forced by the court or by the attorney general to step down. It is widely seen as designed to shield Netanyahu from facing such a sanction for allegedly violating a conflict of interest agreement he signed in 2020 to allow him to serve as premier while on trial for corruption charges. Under that deal, Netanyahu committed not to involve himself in judicial matters that could affect his ongoing trial.

The current government has been pushing through a comprehensive overhaul of the judiciary and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara has declared Netanyahu to be in violation of the deal, though she has also said she isn’t considering ordering the premier to recuse himself.

In his statement, Levin dismissed a proposal made by the court to delay the implementation date of the law to the next Knesset in order to sidestep the apparent personal nature of the law.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut at a ceremony at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on June 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“The meaning of delaying the implementation of the recusal law is that an unelected official… would be able to hand themselves powers that they were never given, and discuss the delusional option of ordering a prime minister to recuse himself, in total negation of the election results,” Levin said (though no official had sought to hold such a discussion prior to the legislation’s passage).

“The result of this would be that Israel will no longer be a democracy, instead being ruled by people who placed themselves above the people, above the voters’ choice in the ballot box.”

Smotrich, the finance minister, said in a statement: “The discussion in the High Court on the recusal law is illegitimate. The people had their say in the elections, and officials cannot cancel the people’s choice. Judges cannot cancel a Basic Law and certainly not invent for themselves or the attorney general the authority to depose an elected prime minister. That is the truth, and everything else is a bad and invalid show.”

Leaders of protests against the government’s judicial overhaul likened Levin to a mob lawyer.

“Levin is continuing to behave like an attorney for the Sicilian mafia and is directing threats at the court as the hearing begins,” they said in a statement. “Such mafia-like conduct happens only in a dictatorship.

“The man leading a dangerous leadership coup that is crushing the State of Israel already knows that millions will show up to defend the court and the gatekeepers [of democracy] in the face of his actions.”

MK Tally Gotliv attends a court hearing on petitions against a government law at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Rothman, who chairs the Knesset Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, which shepherded the legislation, assailed the court for agreeing to even discuss the potential voiding of the government’s recusal law.

“The very existence of such a discussion in a democratic state is a very extreme act. It’s like the government holding a discussion on canceling elections,” Rothman asserted in an interview with Army Radio.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said the court was trying to solve a “very small problem” with “a sledgehammer.”

“It is canceling democracy,” he told the Ynet outlet.

Other coalition lawmakers also weighed in against the court. MK Tally Gotliv, of Netanyahu’s Likud party, who attended the hearing, called the proceedings “strange.”

“What interests me is who has the authority to recuse a judge,” she said.

MK Zvi Sukkot of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party said that “the High Court was never authorized to discuss Basic Laws” and “allowing one official [the attorney general] to cancel the people’s choice on their own is an attack on democracy.”

“The opposition wants Baharav-Miara to be able to appoint a prime minister to Israel on her own accord,” he said.

The petitions against the recusal law were filed by the Movement for Quality Government in Israel and the Yisrael Beytenu party. They argue that legislation of Basic Laws cannot be tailored to the needs of a specific individual.

Yisrael Beytenu party leader MK Avigdor Liberman arrives to a court hearing on petitions against a government law at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Opposition MK Avigdor Liberman, leader of Yisrael Beytenu, was at the court where he told the Kan public broadcaster that implementation of the law should at least be postponed until after the next elections.

“It’s a draconian law that a prime minister can be recused only after their funeral, not a second before. Therefore, this is an unreasonable and unacceptable law,” Liberman said.

Thursday morning saw hundreds of anti-government protesters demonstrate near Netanyahu’s private home on Gaza Street in Jerusalem ahead of the High Court hearing.

The anti-Netanyahu activists from the Brothers and Sisters in Arms group arrived with cardboard boxes carrying the slogan “Pack, Sara, Levin is moving in” — implying that Levin, not Netanyahu, is the true power in the government.

The activists demanded that Netanyahu “show leadership and cancel the judicial coup so that the chaos will stop and Israel will get back on track.”

Police deployed a large number of officers to the scene, including mounted officers and a water cannon.

Four protesters were arrested for trespassing and disturbing the peace after climbing over a fence into the property of a building adjacent to the prime minister’s residence.

Members of the anti-judicial overhaul protest movement ‘Brothers in Arms’ protest outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, September 28, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90). Banners read ‘Pack, Sara, Levin is moving in.’

Pro-government activists from the right-wing Im Tirzu group held a demonstration near the court under the banner: “The High Court of Justice is destroying democracy.”

Demonstrators set up official-looking ballot boxes filled with voting slips that had been stamped “Canceled by the High Court.”

During the Thursday hearing, the court is expected to consider delaying the law’s implementation until the next Knesset takes office, a step that was recommended by Baharav-Miara.

Such a move by the court would allow it to avoid the highly contentious and unprecedented step of striking down an amendment to a Basic Law, while solving what petitioners and Baharav-Miara herself have pointed to as the problematic nature of the legislation, due to its ostensible goal of personally benefiting Netanyahu.

Most Popular
read more: