Netanyahu said to plan bill to override High Court, safeguard his immunity
Law would wholly dismantle Court oversight of Knesset, gov't

Netanyahu said to plan bill to override High Court, safeguard his immunity

Legislation would reportedly elevate decisions of elected officials above those of the court and protect PM from prosecution

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, February 5, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to promote a bill that would allow the government to overrule the High Court of Justice on administrative matters, the Haaretz daily reported Monday. If passed, the bill could safeguard the prime minister’s immunity from prosecution by permitting the annulment of any judicial decision that could rescind it.

The proposed clause would effectively allow the Knesset to ignore the court’s administrative rulings, and also permit it to resubmit laws that have been struck down by the court in the past, the report said. It would thus prevent the court from overruling both Knesset legislation and government decisions and elevate the latter above those of the judiciary.

According to the report, the planned bill will be included in a legal annex to coalition agreements and government guidelines.

While previous proposals have focused on preventing the Supreme Court from striking down legislation, the new measure reportedly being pushed by the ruling Likud party would completely dismantle the Supreme Court’s judicial oversight over both parliament and the cabinet. Specifically, the report noted, the bill would prevent justices from ruling that efforts to shield Netanyahu from a pending indictment for corruption — whether through legislation or a government or Knesset decision — are unconstitutional.

In a statement, the prime minister’s Likud party said that although there was an ongoing attempt to “restore the balance” between the legislative branch and the judiciary, the Haaretz report included proposals that were not being discussed.

“The sensationalist reports in the media,” the statement said, were aimed at “preventing  any attempt to restore the balance between the legislative branch elected by the people, and the judiciary. The maintenance of independent and strong courts is a principle that continues to guide Likud, but this does not mean that the court is omnipotent.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Tourism Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset on February 13, 2018 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Haaretz, the bill is being spearheaded by Yariv Levin, the outgoing tourism minister who is reportedly jockeying for the position of justice minister in the new government.

The bill is also reportedly being coordinated with the Union of Right-wing Parties’ MK Bezalel Smotrich, who was said to have been “actively involved in the discussions and wording.”

Smotrich, while denying the specifics of Monday’s Haaretz report, tweeted Sunday that Israel’s democracy had previously been “stolen” by the Supreme Court and that “we will simply return it to the people. That is all.”

Levin is a political hawk and an advocate for weakening the powers of the court. The possibility that Levin or Smotrich could be tapped for the post has sparked consternation on the left and among judicial officials in light of their staunch criticism of the Supreme Court.

Last month, Hebrew media reports indicated that Netanyahu is leaning toward appointing either Levin or Smotrich as justice minister. Channel 12 news reported that “it was almost certain” the prime minister would choose one of the two men.

Right-wing politicians in Israel have long sought to limit the Supreme Court, which is among the most powerful in the democratic world, and the outgoing justice minister, Ayelet Shaked, has advanced several measures to clip its wings.

The court’s defenders say that in Israel’s fractious society, where the Knesset frequently shirks its responsibility to protect religious pluralism, civil liberties and the rights of Palestinians, the court has no choice but to fill the moral and legal vacuum. Maintaining an independent judiciary, they say, serves as a counterweight against the danger of a tyranny of the majority trampling the rights of those who are not properly represented by the political system.

National Union MK Bezalel Smotrich at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 27, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Both Levin and Smotrich have expressed support for clamping down on the Supreme Court and removing its ability to act as a check on the legislature — by denying it the right to strike down Knesset laws. Smotrich has also explicitly said he will seek to enact legislation to protect Netanyahu from indictment.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength in the wake of the April 9 elections to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister, or seek to utilize existing immunity provisions for the same purpose.

He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential support for an immunity move or for a so-called French Law that would shelter a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation. Current law already provides for any MK to obtain immunity by a majority vote in the Knesset House Committee and then in the Knesset plenum. Until 2005, MKs were automatically granted immunity from prosecution, and that immunity could be lifted by majority votes in the House Committee and plenum.

The prime minister is a suspect in three criminal probes, known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft indictments, including bribery in one of the cases.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.

The prime minister denies all the allegations and has sought to delay the hearing. Netanyahu’s political rivals have warned that such a delay would buy him time to shore up his immunity from prosecution, thus defanging the indictment.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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