Netanyahu slams ‘distorted’ reports on his plans to curb Supreme Court

PM says media claims he intends to shatter court’s oversight powers are ‘untrue,’ but acknowledges he will work to stop it from being ‘all-powerful’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel's 71st Independence Day, May 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, on Israel's 71st Independence Day, May 9, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday evening railed at “misleading” and “distorted” media reports according to which he was seeking to nullify the High Court of Justice’s oversight of Knesset decisions, but indicated that he thought the bench should not be able to strike down legislation.

A Haaretz report earlier in the day claimed the prime minister planned to promote a bill that would allow the Knesset to ignore the court’s administrative rulings, and would also permit parliament to resubmit laws that have been struck down by the court in the past.

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.

The main target of the legislation is thought to be a possible Knesset decision to grant Netanyahu retroactive immunity from a series of criminal cases he is facing indictments in.

In a Facebook post on Monday evening, Netanyahu wrote that he has always supported “a strong and independent court — but that does not mean an all-powerful court.”

“Misleading leaks and distorted commentary published by the media include proposals that are untrue. All this is being done to sow fear and prevent any changes, in an attempt to block the restoration of the balance between the branches [of government].”

He said such balance was “required to pass laws that have been struck down in the past, laws the public expects us to pass: the expulsion of terrorists’ families, the death penalty for terrorists and a deportation law for [African migrants].”

Detained African migrants inside the Holot detention center, located in Israel’s southern Negev desert near the Egyptian border, on February 4, 2018. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

In fact, only the deportation of illegal immigrants has been blocked by the courts in the past. The other two bills have not yet cleared the legislative process, having been bogged down by various disagreements and difficulties.

There have been previous proposals to allow the Knesset to override High Court rulings to strike down legislation.

But the new alleged measure would completely dismantle the 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.

Opposition politicians and judicial experts reacted with outrage to the report.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz speaks at the Knesset on May 13, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, who is likely to be the opposition leader in the upcoming Knesset, said “Such cheapening of the rule of law crosses a red line and we will not let this pass.”

Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg said the reported coalition agreement pushed by Netanyahu is a “clear violation of the law. A bribery agreement in broad daylight.” She also threatened to take the matter to the High Court of Justice.

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, though other coalition partners have been more outspoken in support of such a move.

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.

A view of the Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem. (Flash90)

The prime minister is a suspect in three criminal probes 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, which has been scheduled for sometime before July 9.

Netanyahu’s political rivals have warned that such a delay would buy him time to shore up his immunity from prosecution and stave off the indictment.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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