Gantz: Failure to obey court decision amounts to a 'coup'

PM won’t pledge to honor High Court ruling if it strikes down reasonableness law

In US interviews, Netanyahu dodges question, says Israel would be in ‘uncharted territory’; says he plans to use fresh law to reappoint Deri as minister; misrepresents petition

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)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Thursday that Israel would enter “uncharted territory” should the Supreme Court strike down his hardline coalition’s highly contentious “reasonableness” law that passed amid widespread opposition and intense protests on Monday. Asked directly whether he would abide by a court ruling to strike it down, he refused to say.

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, and quickly retracted, by a Likud lawmaker. 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 Thursday 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 separate interviews to US media on Thursday, 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, which prevents judicial oversight of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of reasonableness.

Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a Shas party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“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.

He pointed to the “internal debate in the United States right now, about the powers of the Supreme Court, about whether it’s abusing its power, whether you should curtail it,” he said. “Does that make the American democracy not a democracy?”

Netanyahu acknowledged the “big debate” the overhaul legislation had set off in Israel, with massive, sustained public protests for over six months, as well as dire warnings from security officials, business leaders, legal experts, foreign allies — chief among them the US — and others.

“I don’t want to minimize it. I also don’t want to minimize the concerns that people have, because many of them have been caught in this spiral of fear… Israel is going to remain a democracy,” said the premier.

During the interview, Netanyahu cited “close to a hundred thousand people who signed a petition to say that ‘we support the current actions of the government.'”

However, the petition in question, with some 80,000 signatures, made no such assertion, saying only that its signatories oppose a suspension of reserve duties by overhaul opponents. It also has over 20,000 anonymous signatories as well as individuals who appear to have signed multiple times or under fake names.

In response to a question on a potential US response amid repeated warnings by the Biden administration to slow down and seek wide consensus on the legislation, Netanyahu said ties between Jerusalem and Washington were strong.

“Look, we’re both interested in blocking Iran. We’re both interested in advancing peace. This is the reason I came back to serve for the sixth time as Israel’s Prime Minister. I think those goals are achievable, and they’re going to be achieved together between Israel and the United States. I think that will strengthen our alliances, not weaken,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a vote on the reasonableness bill at the Knesset on July 24, 2023 after being fitted with a pacemaker. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a separate interview with NPR on Thursday, Netanyahu claimed he had no intention of sacking the attorney general and denied criticism that the judicial overhaul is intended to help him escape his graft trial on multiple charges of corruption.

“It’s not even on the table and it won’t happen,” the prime minister said in response to NPR’s question about Baharav-Miara, whose been in the crosshairs of the far-right, religious coalition for its seven months in office.

The Prime Minister’s Office and Netanyahu’s Likud party swiftly denied seeking to move forward with a law splitting the position of the attorney general, saying its advancement had on Wednesday not been coordinated with coalition party heads or the prime minister, although they did not rule out advancing the bill in the future.

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.”

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