Ministers to vote on bill limiting Supreme Court's power

Netanyahu is turning Israel into Turkey, opposition chief charges

Zionist Union leaders warn of threat to democracy posed by law allowing PM to declare war without consulting cabinet, bid to hobble Supreme Court

Zionist Union faction head Avi Gabbay speaks at the Israeli Social Conference 2018 in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Zionist Union faction head Avi Gabbay speaks at the Israeli Social Conference 2018 in Tel Aviv on May 1, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Knesset member Avi Gabbay, who leads the opposition Zionist Union faction, on Saturday night accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to make Israel more like Turkey with a series of legislative initiatives that the left has deemed a threat to democracy.

“This isn’t the time to sit on the fence. Democracies fell when the majority were sitting on the fence,” Gabbay told a crowd of several hundred at a weekly demonstration against the government outside the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv.

“Netanyahu and his government want to take us to Turkey,” he charged.

“Just this week, they enacted a law by which Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Avigdor] Liberman, two people who don’t believe one another, can take us to war.”

Zionist Union Avi Gabbay speaks at a pro-democracy rally on May 5, 2018 (Hadashot screeenshot)

Gabbay was referring to a bill passed last Monday giving the prime minister the authority to declare war or order a major military operation after consulting only the defense minister, and not via a full cabinet vote as the law had previously required.

Sixty-two Knesset members voted the dramatic proposal into law, beating out the 41 opposition MKs who opposed it claiming that the language of the law effectively gives free reign to the prime minister by removing all oversight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, center, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, Jerusalem May 30, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the new law, in “extreme circumstances,” military operations can be authorized by the prime minister and defense minister alone and will not need a vote by cabinet ministers.

The law does not specify exactly what those circumstances may be, or who will determine them, saying only that the case will apply, “if the issue is necessary due to urgency.”

Another critic of the new law was former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, who has formed a new party with the declared intention of unseating Netanyahu.

“The government is a clumsy body, but that’s exactly what the cabinet is for,” he said Saturday at a cultural event in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv. “There’s a reason why they say that in a democracy the decision to go to war is especially complicated. That’s exactly what’s necessary as far as we’re concerned – it’s the way it should be.

Ya’alon, like Gabbay, went on to invoke Turkey, whose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been consolidating his power in recent years with a series of draconian measures and harsh crackdowns on political opponents.

“Two people will take the decision to go to war?” he continued. “We’re losing all of the democratic checks and balances in this process of Erdoganization. This is no democracy, it’s a democtatorship.”

The bill has received some muted criticism within the coalition, though no members of Netanyahu’s government challenged it when it came up for a plenum vote. On Friday, Intelligence and Transportation Minister Israel Katz called it “not good.”

Supreme Court measure to come up for vote

Another government measure that came under fire during the protest in Tel Aviv Saturday night was a bid to limit the Supreme Court’s power to strike down laws on constitutional grounds. That initiative seemed likely to come up for a vote Sunday in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the cabinet body that lends coalition sponsorship to bills.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union), who also addressed the crowd at the protest, said his party was “fighting for democracy” and against “incitement” and the so-called Supreme Court “supercession clause.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, both of the right-wing Jewish Home party, have vowed to bring the measure to a vote despite efforts by Netanyahu to stall.

The legislation – three separate bills that would be merged later in the legislative process – seeks to severely limit the court’s ability to strike down Knesset legislation as “unconstitutional.” In the short term, it would enable lawmakers to change the law in ways that would allow Israel to deport tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, a step the court has prevented. More generally, the Israeli right has long criticized the High Court for its sweeping powers, and sought to make the Knesset more powerful in its stead.

Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett (R) with Jewish Home MK and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked in the Knesset plenum, on November 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The legislation comes amid efforts by right-wing lawmakers to limit the court’s power after judges have repeatedly stymied the government’s efforts to imprison and deport African asylum seekers from the country without examining their asylum requests or, according to the court, sufficiently ascertaining the safety of the countries to which they were to be deported, as Israel is required to do under international treaties and Israeli law.

The clash led right-wing politicians to renew efforts to push legislation limiting the court’s ability to overturn Knesset legislation, and thus allow the coalition to pass a law that would legalize the deportations.

The bill proposed by the Jewish Home would allow the Knesset to re-vote on a law disqualified by the High Court, and thereby to pass the law despite the court’s ruling against its constitutionality.

During a meeting last Sunday with Netanyahu, Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned against setting a bar for such a vote at a majority of parliament — 61 votes in the 120-seat Knesset — as demanded by Jewish Home. Any ruling coalition in Israel’s parliamentary system is almost certain to be able to muster such a majority.

Such a low bar was a “danger to democracy and to the court,” she reportedly warned the prime minister.

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