Lapid: Netanyahu seeks to 'turn State of Israel into Turkey'

Opposition slams PM’s reported plan to override Supreme Court in immunity bid

‘People must take to the streets before democracy destroyed,’ Lapid urges; Bar Association head warns ‘we will all the pay the price’ if checks and balances not maintained

Raoul Wootliff is the Times of Israel's former political correspondent and producer of the Daily Briefing podcast.

Blue and White party head Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019 (Flash90)
Blue and White party head Benny Gantz speaks during a press conference at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2019 (Flash90)

Opposition politicians and judicial experts on Monday slammed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported plans to promote a bill that would allow the government to overrule the High Court of Justice on administrative matters.

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.

Benny Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, who is likely to be the opposition leader in the upcoming Knesset, decried the move.

“Such cheapening of the rule of law crosses a red line and we will not let this pass,” he said.

“It is unacceptable for deals to be created that aim to harm the rule of law and undermine the pillars of democracy for the benefit of a prime minister who has three pending indictments against him,” Gantz added.

Blue and White’s Yair Lapid on March 31, 2019 (Saria Diamant/Blue and White).

Blue and White’s No. 2, Yair Lapid, told a press conference on Monday that “people have to take to the streets before our democracy is destroyed.”

Lapid mocked the prime minister’s Likud party, saying it has “turned into a ‘get out of jail’ party for Netanyahu,” and criticized the latest efforts as an attempt to “turn the State of Israel into Turkey,” alluding to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s law changes that have granted him the option to remain leader for decades.

Lapid also said that based on the proposal, as well as Netanyahu’s efforts to delay a pre-indictment hearing against him in three corruption cases, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit should file charges immediately.

“The attorney general should cancel Netanyahu’s hearing. He doesn’t deserve one. No one owes him a hearing. There is no other suspect in the country that would act like that and still get one,” Lapid charged. “If these laws pass, Israel won’t be the same country. Ask yourselves, in which countries does the ruler have immunity from the law? There’s no such thing in a democracy.”

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.

Judicial officials also spoke out against the reported plan.

“Without an independent and robust judicial system, Israeli democracy and the necessary balance between authorities will suffer a critical blow, and we will all pay the price,” Bar Association head Avi Himi warned in a statement.

A senior justice system official told Channel 13 news that Israel is “a step away from the loss of democracy.”

“A direct line connects Netanyahu’s planned indictment to his plan to assassinate the court. Netanyahu is ready to liquidate everything so as not to stand trial. Someone in the political system must wake up quickly,” the anonymous official said.

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, Haaretz reported earlier Monday.

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu votes during elections in Jerusalem, on April 9, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)

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 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 had not been 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.”

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 and stave off the indictment.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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