PM: Governments always respect court rulings — and courts never nixed a Basic Law

After contentious CNN interview, ‘clarification’ still not explicit on what he’d do if court intervenes on overhaul; Likud minister: We’ll respect ruling ‘under any circumstances’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  (R) speaks to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview aired Thursday, July 27, 2023, days after his government passed the controversial reasonableness law. (Screenshot/CNN, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks to CNN's Wolf Blitzer in an interview aired Thursday, July 27, 2023, days after his government passed the controversial reasonableness law. (Screenshot/CNN, used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coming under fire for refusing to say his government would respect a Supreme Court ruling striking down its latest legislation, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a clarification Friday in which it said “The governments of Israel always respect court rulings.”

But the statement still did not clearly commit to doing so in this case. It qualified its apparent assurance by noting that, at the same time, “the court has always viewed itself as obligated by Basic Laws, to which it confers the status of a constitution.”

“Like the majority of Israelis, the prime minister believes both principles must be maintained,” the statement said.

During interviews with American media Thursday, Netanyahu had warned Israel would enter “uncharted territory” should the Supreme Court strike down the law. Asked directly whether he would abide by a court ruling to strike it down, he refused to say.

The government’s highly contentious legislation this week, which prevents judicial oversight of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of reasonableness, was an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law: The Judiciary.

The Supreme Court has indeed never struck down changes to a Basic Law, though never has any Basic Law legislation caused such uproar and division within the public as this week’s bill. Critics of the bill have said passing such a critical piece of legislation with only a bare majority (64 of the Knesset’s 120) and at a swift pace that did not allow much time for deliberations or review could and should lead the court to consider taking action in this case.

While Netanyahu’s office remained somewhat ambivalent in its statement Friday, a senior Likud minister was emphatic that the government would never refuse a court ruling.

Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar told Channel 12 that Netanyahu “certainly didn’t avoid the question” of compliance with the court, and that “There is no way the Israeli government will go against the court’s position.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar attends a conference at the Reichman University in Herzliya, June 12, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The court’s position is obligatory. We’re a democracy, and to keep Israel a strong democracy, the justice system needs to be sturdy. If there is a court ruling, we’ll respect it under any circumstances,” he said.

“But, and this should be noted with gravity, the court has never struck down a Basic Law, which is a de facto constitution. If that happens, it will truly [create] a great fracture.”

During his interviews Thursday, the premier also claimed he has no intention of removing Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara from her position, amid mounting calls from his right flank to do so, and a bill submitted on Thursday by a Likud lawmaker, and quickly retracted, to limit the attorney general’s powers. He also indicated that he plans to use the new reasonableness law to reappoint Aryeh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, as a minister.

“It depends on what happens, of course, with the legislation, we have to see. But if it stands, I expect it to happen,” Netanyahu said in response to a direct question by NPR about whether he would seek to reappoint Deri.

The court had used the reasonableness clause in a bombshell decision in January to rule that Deri’s appointment as interior and health minister was “unreasonable in the extreme” due to his criminal convictions, most recently for tax fraud in 2022, and forced Netanyahu to remove him from his roles.

The premier gave several separate interviews to US media, downplaying the effects of his government’s divisive judicial overhaul, saying the first law passed in the legislative package was a “minor correction” and that fears for Israel’s democracy were “silly.”

In a sit-down with CNN, Netanyahu refused to say whether he would abide by any potential ruling overturning the reasonableness law.

“If the court does strike this down, will you abide by the rule of law?” he was asked.

Said Netanyahu: “We’ll go into uncharted territory, and I really would like to believe that they won’t do that… We’re all subject to the rule of law. The prime minister is subject to the rule of law. The Knesset, our parliament, is subject to the rule of law. The judges are subject to the law. Everybody is subject to the law.

“Now the closest thing we have to a constitution are Basic Laws,” he continued. “That’s what we’re dealing with. What you’re talking about is a situation, or potential situation, where in American terms, the United States Supreme Court would take a constitutional amendment and say that it’s unconstitutional. That’s the kind of spiral that you’re talking about, and I hope we don’t get to that.”

Most Basic Laws in Israel can generally be easily changed by a Knesset majority, as was the case with the “reasonableness” law passed on Monday, without requiring a supermajority or being further entrenched. Unlike the US and some other democracies, Israel’s only real check on the governing majority is the court system. Israel does not have a constitution or a system of state governance, for example, and has a unicameral legislature in which the executive and legislative branches function in tandem.

In addition to weakening the oversight abilities of the courts, the coalition’s proposed legislative package seeks to hand politicians control of judicial appointments.

The government’s critics say removing the reasonableness standard opens the door to corruption and improper appointments of unqualified cronies to important positions.

The law was the first part in a larger package of bills that critics say will fundamentally alter Israel’s democratic system by stripping the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the governing coalition.

Demonstrators wave large Israeli flags during a protest against the Netanyahu government’s overhaul of the judicial system, outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on Monday, July 24, 2023, as parliament passed the ‘reasonableness’ law. (AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The court is expected to hear arguments against the reasonableness law in September, along with petitions demanding Justice Minister Yariv Levin convene the country’s Judicial Selection Committee, setting up a fall showdown.

MK Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party, assailed Netanyahu for failing to say he would abide by a decision to strike down the law.

“In a democratic country, the prime minister respects and acts according to court decisions, no matter how much he doesn’t agree with them,” Gantz said, adding that there was no gray area on the matter. “If Netanyahu, like any representative of the public, doesn’t obey the court ruling, he will be carrying out a coup that will change the character of Israel’s government, something that would negate his legitimacy to serve in his role.”

In his CNN interview, Netanyahu insisted that the court had become too powerful and that the overhaul would balance out these powers with the government and the legislative branch.

“We don’t want a subservient court. We want an independent court, not an all-powerful court and that’s the correction that we’re doing,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu is on trial in three separate cases and facing charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust for allegedly taking expensive gifts from benefactors and attempting to arrange secret deals with media companies for more positive coverage. He denies wrongdoing.

Asked if the new law will make it easier for him to dismiss his own trial, he said: “It’s completely false. There’s no connection between this judicial reform, which is very broad, and my trial.”

Most Popular
read more: