‘Surrender’: Coalition MKs up in arms after PM says he’s dropped ‘override’ clause

Likud’s Miki Zohar contradicts premier’s statements in WSJ interview, says ‘clause will come in the future’; far-right police minister Ben Gvir says Netanyahu caved to protesters

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a former political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was facing pushback from members of his hardline coalition on Thursday after telling US media that key sections of the coalition’s judicial overhaul were either buried or would change.

A minister from Netanyahu’s own Likud party contradicted the premier’s statement, saying that “my assessment is that the override clause will come in the future,” even though Netanyahu told The Wall Street Journal that giving the Knesset the ability to bar judicial review of legislation was “out” and not returning.

“In the end, I think we all understand that in order for this government to continue to exist, we must advance reform,” Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar, who is considered close to overhaul champion Justice Minister Yariv Levin, told Radio 103FM.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right coalition partner, accused Netanyahu of “surrendering” to mass protests against the planned judicial shakeup, saying that “we were elected to bring governance and change; reform is a cornerstone of that promise.”

Their comments echoed whispers of dissatisfaction across the coalition at Netanyahu’s about-face, six months into the government’s plan to increase political power at the expense of the judiciary.

“The idea of an override clause, where the parliament, the Knesset, can override the decisions of the Supreme Court with a simple majority, I said, I threw that out… It’s out,” Netanyahu told the Wall Street Journal.

In addition, Netanyahu said he still planned to change the method for appointing judges, but not in the way his coalition has been working on. “It’s not going to be the current structure, but it’s not going to be the original structure,” he said, without further elaboration.

Culture and Sport Minister Miki Zohar at his office in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023.(Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Levin has been determined to place the appointment of judges under coalition control, arguing for a need to “correct” the lack of diversity that enabled supposedly liberal judges to block right-wing policy. The current legislation on selecting new judges, paused by Netanyahu in late March hours from its expected finalization into law, would have given the coalition direct control over all lower court and key Supreme Court appointments.

Netanyahu has said he plans to bring a new version of a bill to redesign the Judicial Selection Committee in the Knesset’s winter session, which will open in October.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to The Wall Street Journal in an interview published June 29, 2023 (screenshot: YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday that Netanyahu is considering a formula that would remove the three spots for judges on the committee, and instead split its members between coalition and opposition lawmakers.

Before the summer session closes at the end of July, his coalition plans to pass a law to cancel or curtail judicial review over the “reasonableness” of elected officials’ decisions. The bill has been excoriated by the Attorney General’s Office as opening a “black hole” in transparency and oversight, threatening “serious harm to basic democratic values.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a deadly shooting attack near the West Bank settlement of Eli, June 20, 2023. (Flash90)

As national security minister, Otzma Yehudit leader Ben Gvir has battled for tougher crackdowns on anti-overhaul protesters.

On Thursday he called Netanyahu’s comments proof of a “surrender to those who burn the Ayalon,” a major highway running through Tel Aviv, “and to those who call for civil unrest.” The prime minister’s shift, he said, was “a victory for violence.”

The six months of anti-overhaul protests have seen little violence, but have routinely blocked major thoroughfares and personally targeted politicians for harassment.

“Surrender will lead to strengthening the rule of government legal advisers, which does not allow the elected officials to rule,” Ben Gvir continued, echoing right-wing criticism that government policy is at times constrained by the attorney general and her appointed emissaries.

“Changing the composition of the Judicial Selection Committee, the override clause, and reducing the authority of the judges are necessary,” he said, challenging Netanyahu.

Zohar said that he believed Netanyahu’s comments were made as part of a strategy to calm tensions raised by the coalition’s overhaul package, both domestically and abroad.

Opponents of the government’s judicial overhaul plans protest outside Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s home in Modiin, June 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Whereas judicial appointments are the most contentious issue between Netanyahu and opposition politicians, criticism from foreign allies has been particularly sharp against the override clause, which would give the Knesset the power to enact laws that are immune to judicial review.

“Netanyahu’s intention is mainly to calm things down, to say ‘we want to promote reform, but at a [moderate] pace and not in a blitz,'” Zohar said.

“The way we will advance it will unequivocally be different from what we tried to do at the beginning of the Knesset session,” he added, backing up coalition pronouncements that the next phase of judicial legislation will progress at a moderate clip rather than an all-out blitz.

Criticism in another direction bubbled up from within Likud, represented by renegade freshman lawmaker Tally Gotliv. She said that “the reform is dead,” and that the coalition has “lost not because we were not right, but because we did not know how to govern.”

Talks between coalition and opposition lawmakers to try to find a compromise reform solution have broken down, and did not register tangible achievements during two months of effort.

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