UTJ insisting no government without High Court override commitment first — reports

Top spiritual leader reportedly tells United Torah Judaism MKs to not compromise on issue, while Netanyahu said to prefer to first swear-in coalition, then agree on policy moves

United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf seen after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism chairman Rabbi Yitzchak Goldknopf seen after coalition talks at a hotel in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The United Torah Judaism party is digging in on its refusal to join a government without first getting a commitment from the Likud party that it will pass legislation enabling the Knesset to override the High Court, according to Hebrew media reports.

Rabbi Yisroel Hager, head of Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty and a key spiritual leader of the ultra-Orthodox UTJ, on Monday instructed its faction’s lawmakers to insist on securing the so-called Override Clause before agreeing to back Likud leader  Benjamin Netanyahu in forming the next government.

Such a bill would allow the Knesset to re-legislate a law struck down by the High Court as incommensurate with Israel’s Basic Laws.

The Vishnitz leader was emphatic that MKs not compromise at all on the matter, telling the lawmakers the legislation is more important than any other matter, even the distribution of funding, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

The Ynet new outlet reported that a decision on the matter had been made at a gathering of the Aguda Yisrael party’s spiritual leaders on Sunday. Aguda Yisrael is one of the parties that make up United Torah Judaism, along with Degal HaTorah.

The stance has reportedly been communicated to Netanyahu, whose bloc of right-wing and religious parties won a majority in last week’s election for the Knesset. Netanyahu, a former prime minister, now intends to form a coalition and return to power.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu meets in Jerusalem with UTJ MK Moshe Gafni on November 6, 2022. (Courtesy)

However, Netanyahu’s plan to first appoint key ministers and establish a government, and only then negotiate with coalition members on guiding principles, is opposed by his allies in UTJ and the far-right Religious Zionism party, according to reports.

Nonetheless, Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, another ally of Netanyahu, supports the Likud approach, Kan reported, drawing criticism from some in UTJ who have started calling him “a Likud MK.”

Ultra-Orthodox parties are eager to see the override clause passed into law, as they hope to implement a number of changes as part of the next government including new legislation granting community members exemption from national service. The courts have in the past ruled that national service must be shared equally among all eligible citizens.

There is said to be growing concern among the far-right and religious parties that Netanyahu is backing away from passing the controversial override legislation, which critics warn could neuter the High Court. Channel 12 reported, without citing sources, that Netanyahu does intend to allow the override bill to proceed and may only be signaling hesitation as a negotiation tactic.

Netanyahu began informal talks on forming his next government on Sunday,  though he has not yet been officially handed the mandate by President Isaac Herzog. He has met the leaders of United Torah Judaism’s two factions, Moshe Gafni and Yitzhak Goldknopf, and Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel Smotrich.

Kan reported that Smotrich also called for an “expanded” override clause allowing the Knesset to void Supreme Court rulings with a simple majority and not require at least 61 MKs. The report said, however, that Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies were opposed to such a measure.

Rabbi Yisroel Hager, the head of Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty, speaks to his followers in the northern city of Safed on August 14, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Passing legislation enabling the Knesset to override High Court rulings is also a top priority for the far-right Religious Zionism party, two of its incoming MKs said last week.

Amichay Eliyahu, number nine on the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit joint slate, told The Times of Israel that the party was determined to “restore democracy,” which he said had been “seized by a small group of people” in the judicial system.

MK Simcha Rothman said there would be no justification for the existence of a right-wing government if it did not succeed in passing such a law.

The Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance made passing a High Court override law a central pillar of its manifesto during the campaign.

Critics say such a law would undermine democracy by eliminating the court’s ability to act as a balance to legislators and protect minorities from abuses of power.

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