Ministers agree to delay vote on law to rein in Supreme Court

Court president conditions confab with Netanyahu on postponing ministerial decision on legislation that would override rulings that strike down Knesset laws

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)
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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners agreed Monday to delay by a week a vote on a controversial Knesset bill that would rein in Israel’s top court, after the head of the Supreme Court refused to meet him otherwise.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said in a statement on Monday that the Prime Minister’s Office had contacted her to set up the meeting and she was willing to accept the invitation. However, she conditioned it on delaying a vote by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, scheduled for the same day, for at least a week.

Netanyahu turned to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who along with Education Minister Naftali Bennett were pushing to advance the legislation, and she agreed to the postponement.

Netanyahu and Shaked are now scheduled to meet with Hayut and the court’s vice president, Hanan Meltzer, on Sunday morning.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (r) and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut on February 22, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

The proposed legislation would allow 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 members to re-approve a law struck down by the Supreme Court, effectively giving any government the ability to quash the ruling.

The legislation would take the form of a passage added to the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. With no constitution, Israel’s basic laws set the parameters of the balance of power between different branches of government.

The meeting with Hayut follows the advice of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who told the prime minister that in order for the legislation to proceed, Netanyahu would first have to meet with her. Mandelblit himself said he would consider supporting legislation that empowered the Knesset to restore a law ruled as illegal by the High Court only if at least 70 Knesset members voted to do so.

Hayut is expected to tell Netanyahu and Shaked that she strongly objects to court rulings being overturned with a simple majority. The Ynet news site reported that the court would accept the legislation if it would require a two-thirds majority, or 80 MKs, but that Hayut may compromise to accept on 75 MKs being able to overturn a ruling. Coalition partners Likud and Kulanu are reportedly prepared to require 65 MKs, while Bennett and Shaked’s Jewish Home insist that a majority of 61 MKs should be enough.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks during the event at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on April 23, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“Our demand to legislate the version that has 61 MKs is no surprise,” Bennett tweeted Monday. “Likud is signed on an explicit coalition agreement with us. Agreements must be honored. I expect Likud’s full support this coming Sunday. We’ll bring back the correct balance between the [legislative and judicial] branches.”

The Jewish Home party has long campaigned for clipping the wings of what it regards as an overly liberal Supreme Court, and Shaked, the party’s number two, has succeeded in having several conservative candidates appointed to the top bench.

The idea of legislating to alter the balance between the judicial and executive arms of government has gathered steam lately, particularly after a recent ruling by the court blocking deportations of African migrants.

Earlier this month Netanyahu met with former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in an apparent effort to show he is seeking middle ground on the issue, Hadashot news reported.

According to the report, the meeting with Barak, a symbol of the power of the court, was meant to underline Netanyahu’s commitment to the justice system in general and the High Court in particular.

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