Opposition skewers bill to rein in High Court; Kahlon vows to block it

Finance minister says he won’t let ‘extreme factions’ dictate agenda; Gabbay says ministers will be remembered for turning Israel into ‘Erdogan’s Turkey’

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a ceremony in southern Israel, April 12, 2018. (Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon speaks during a ceremony in southern Israel, April 12, 2018. (Flash90)

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said on Sunday that his Kulanu party would oppose legislation curtailing the High Court, hours after the bill was green-lit by cabinet ministers, including a lawmaker of his own party.

Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, cried foul over the ministers’ endorsement of the bill, arguing that the law, if passed, would turn Israel into “Erdogan’s Turkey.”

The cabinet authorized the controversial bill to limit the powers of the top courts despite ongoing coalition disagreements over the proposed legislation that threaten its continued path through the Knesset.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a group of ministers that decides the government position on upcoming legislation, on Sunday voted in favor of the Jewish Home-backed bill to give a majority of 61 MKs the ability to overturn Supreme Court decisions to strike down Knesset legislation as unconstitutional.

Kulanu’s representative on the committee, Construction Minister Yoav Galant, voted in favor. But Kahlon maintained that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation’s decision “breaks the coalition agreement not to pass legislation that damages the rule of law.”

“The Kulanu faction will continue to fight against the supercession law and will not let extremist factions dictate the agenda of the State of Israel,” Kahlon said in a statement, alluding to the right-wing Jewish Home party, which is championing the legislation. He said the bill, if passed, would constitute a “blow to the rule of law,” and added, “The State of Israel is precious to us.”

Likud’s Benny Begin, a maverick lawmaker who on multiple occasions broke ranks to vote against legislation backed by the government, announced he would oppose the bill in a plenum vote. In an interview with Israel Radio, Begin accused the ministerial panel of “turning into an arena for a contest in extremism.”

The approval of the bill was fiercely condemned by opposition parties.

“Every minister who voted today in favor of the disgrace that is the supercession [bill] will be remembered as one who tried to turn Israel into Erdogan’s Turkey,” said MK Avi Gabbay, who leads the Zionist Union opposition faction.

Zionist Union leader Avi Gabbay speaks at a conference held by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem on March 11, 2018.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“This isn’t just another political battle, it’s a battle over the future of this place, and we will manage this fight with all of the tools at our disposal and we will win,” he added.

The opposition Yesh Atid party’s leader, Yair Lapid, argued that the bill was merely an internal coalition battle between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett — with serious consequences for Israel’s democracy.

“The Ministerial Committee for Legislation passed the supercession bill so that Bennett could say, ‘I beat you,’ and Netanyahu could answer, ‘Not true, I beat you.’ This is what it’s like when one deals with their own PR rather than the best interests of the state,” said Lapid. “If everyone wins, who loses? Democracy, the rule of law, and the weak, who will now not have anyone to turn to against the tyranny of the government.”

The ministerial approval was also denounced by the head of Israel’s powerful bar association. “We cannot hurt the High Court of Justice,” said Efi Naveh, according to the Walla news site.

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)

In the short term, the legislation 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’s chairman Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said the decision “begins the process of building a separation wall between the three branches of government.”

“We must remember that the Knesset, as a representative of the people, is sovereign, as is the case in a proper democracy,” they said in a statement following the vote. “The High Court’s intervention in legislation and in government decision has for a long time breached accepted norms.”

The vote went ahead despite a request by Netanyahu to postpone it for a third week in a row.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, Netanyahu said that he would have preferred to further delay the bill in order to reach agreement among all coalition parties, but would nonetheless allow the vote to take place and not use Likud’s veto to block it.

“The correct way to pass the supercession bill is by enlisting all the coalition factions. I wanted to delay it by a week in order to reach agreement and to pass the bill with full coalition support,” he said, in an apparent attempt to deflect Jewish Home criticism at his initial hesitation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Education Minister Naftali Bennett on November 13, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking after the vote, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, one of Likud’s representatives on the committee, called the bill “absolutely necessary,” saying, “Judicial activism has blurred the separation of powers” in Israel.

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 is now set to face a first reading in the Knesset but appears unlikely to progress due to objections from Kulanu.

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