Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated on Sunday that his government will move ahead with changing the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee, the most far-reaching and controversial measure in the judicial shakeup package. He intimated that he was still seeking consensus on this. After that, he said, he would shelve the rest of the judicial overhaul plan.
“We’ve already done quite a bit,” Netanyahu told the Bloomberg financial news outlet. “I stopped the judicial legislation for three months, seeking consensus from the other side – unfortunately not getting it. Then [I] brought in a relatively minor part of the reform, passed it,” he said, referencing the passage two weeks ago of the “reasonableness law,” which bars judicial review of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of their reasonableness.
“And then [I] said I’m still going to give it several months to try and get another consensus. What is it? It would probably be about the composition of the committee that elects judges… that’s basically what’s left. Because other things, I think, we should not legislate. ”
On the night that the reasonableness law passed, Netanyahu said the coalition would reach out to the opposition in the coming days for talks “to reach a general agreement on everything” by the end of November — a month after the Knesset returns from its summer recess. “That’s more than enough time,” he said then. No such substantive contacts are known to have taken place to date.
As regards shelving other parts of the overhaul legislation, the prime minister elaborated to Bloomberg: “I don’t think we should move from the one extreme, where we have perhaps the most activist judicial court on the planet, to getting to a point where the legislature, our Knesset, can just knock out any decision that the court makes. There has to be a balance. That’s what we’re trying to restore.”
While largely avoiding sitting down with Israeli news outlets, Netanyahu has been on an international media blitz in recent weeks, interviewing with NBC News, Fox News, CNN, ABC News, NPR and others, in a global charm offensive to counter severe criticism of his government’s judicial overhaul plans.
The current judicial selection bill, which was suspended in March but is ready for its final readings at short notice, would remake the Judicial Selection Committee, under which coalition and Supreme Court representatives each have veto power over the other’s candidates for the top court, requiring a consensus on such appointments. Instead, the legislation would change the composition of the panel so as to bring appointments throughout the judicial hierarchy under near-absolute government control.
An alternative proposal, floated last week by Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary, would restructure the committee so that half of its representatives would be from the coalition and half of its members would be from the opposition. Such a move would not only completely politicize the committee, but could also leave a loophole in which a party broadly supportive of the coalition could formally sit in the opposition and gain representation on the panel, thereby giving the coalition full control.
“I’m absolutely sure that Israel will come out stable and successful and democratic — at least as democratic, in my view more democratic,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg. “I don’t think we’re going to tear the country apart, I don’t think we’re going to have civil war. I think right now what you’re seeing is the natural conflict between two opposing views that have not yet meshed, but they will mesh.”
Other elements of the overhaul that were unveiled earlier this year by Justice Minister Yariv Levin include a so-called “override clause,” which would either allow the Knesset to quash judicial rulings against legislation or to pass legislation that is preemptively immune from judicial review. Netanyahu has indicated in the past that he does not expect to move forward with an override clause — to the dismay of some members of his coalition — but has then reportedly assured his coalition it has not been shelved.
Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman, who heads the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, have also pushed for legislation transforming legal advisers and their advice from professional authorities to discretionary positions of trust, as well as a bill that would require a supermajority on the High Court to strike down legislation.
Asked by Bloomberg about his intention to renew the term of Bank of Israel governor Amir Yaron — who has been attacked by several members of the coalition — Netanyahu said, “I want to think about it.” He noted that he has “guarded rigorously [Yaron’s] independence and the independence of the central bank, and that will continue to be a policy.”
“I haven’t talked to him yet, but I will,” Netanyahu said of Yaron. “I think he’s been an exceptional central bank director, and I think that’s a possibility that I’ll have to talk to him about.”
In response to a question about Minister Amichai Eliyahu’s recent comments referring to Yaron as a “savage,” Netanyahu said: “My ministers in our hectic parliamentary system can say anything, but it’s a fact that we’ve never intervened with the independence of the central bank, and we won’t… I do not want the government broaching in on what the central bank has to do.”
He also brushed off warnings of economic fallout from the overhaul, urging foreign investors to continue to park their funds in the Jewish state.
“There’s noise in the short-term markets,” Netanyahu claimed. “There’s clarity in the long-term markets.” He added that Israel is an “undervalued” investment: “You should invest in Israel,” he said. “Smart money is coming into Israel now.”
Netanyahu also said that he hopes Israel won’t be plunged into a “constitutional crisis.” He has recently refused to commit to honoring a theoretical High Court of Justice decision striking down the “reasonableness” law, raising concerns about such a scenario.
“I think we won’t. I think there’s a way of reaching an equitable compromise, which is what I’m trying to do now,” he said.
In an interview with NBC News last week, Netanyahu answered similarly, saying that “I think we have to follow two rules. One is, Israeli governments abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court. And at the same time, the Supreme Court respects the Basic Laws [such as the law passed last week], which are the closest thing we have to a constitution. I think we should keep both principles, and I hope we do.”
Reacting to his interview with Bloomberg, the opposition Yesh Atid party said in a statement Sunday that “we recommend that Netanyahu not lie in English or Hebrew,” calling his comments “yet another display of weakness and lies.”
The government’s highly contentious “reasonableness” law was passed as an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law: The Judiciary. The High Court has never struck down changes to a Basic Law, though no other Basic Law legislation has ever caused such uproar and division within the public.
Critics of the law have said passing such a critical piece of legislation without consensus — all 56 members of the opposition boycotted the vote — and at a swift pace that did not allow much time for deliberations or review, could and should lead the court to consider taking action.
The High Court will hear the eight petitions it has accepted against the law on September 12, convening for the first time the entire 15-judge panel for the hearings.