Chief Justice vs. Netanyahu: 'Move to Hamstring Top Court Endangers Israel’s Democracy'

Netanyahu reaches compromise with coalition partner and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to discuss bill limiting the High Court's ability to block laws it deems undemocratic

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a ceremony on October 1, 2017.
Marc Israel Sellem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed Sunday to form a small ministerial team to discuss limiting the power of the High Court of Justice.

Netanyahu, who earlier on Sunday declined a compromise put forward on the matter by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, retreated from his insistence on the current draft of the bill, which would in effect prevent the court from overturning laws.

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Meanwhile Kahlon, who previously said he would not budge from his opposition to restricting the High Court, agreed to discuss a version that would limit the court's power.

The finance minister’s willingness comes against the background of Mendelblit’s proposal, which says that if the High Court strikes down a law, the Knesset can reenact it by a majority of 70 lawmakers.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut criticized the Netanyahu-led move, saying the bill would disrupt judges' ability to administer Israel's Jewish and democratic nature, and that upholding its democratic values is the court's chief concern, even if it displeases certain populations. 

Speaking at a convention in Tel Aviv, Hayut said, "As we seek to pride ourselves, justly, in front of our people and the world, of being the only democracy in the Middle East, we must remember that one of the necessary guarantees for that is maintaining an independent and professional judicial system" that is critical and protective of basic democratic values.

Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu and Tourism Minister Yariv Levin rejected the compromise presented by Mendelblit, which was based on a draft bill prepared by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. The two said they would agree to allow the High Court to overturn legislation only by a unanimous vote by a panel of 15 justices.

Kahlon has promised he would not allow for such legislation. In the past he stated that he would support a more narrow bill which would allow overruling the court on the matter of jailing and deporting African asylum seekers

On Sunday morning several Likud ministers said they were willing to go to election if Kahlon did not allow for broad legislation that would hamstring the High Court. This ratcheted up the crisis between Likud and its centrist coalition partner Kulanu, of which Kahlon is the chairman.

Sources within Kulanu recently told Haaretz that the bill is the latest attempt by Netanyahu to push Israel toward an early election by jeopardizing his ruling coalition.

Kahlon said that to restrict the High Court meant changing a Basic Law, and that could only be done by agreement of all coalition heads. “If we’re changing the Basic Law on the judiciary, let’s go ahead and change whatever involves yeshivas and the settlements,” Kahlon said.

Speaking on Army Radio, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said "if there's any issue that warrants going to elections, it's this." Erdan added that "if we can't make decisions, not on topics such as the infiltrators [asylum seekers], and also on security matters in which the court occasionally intervenes, these are things we can't let slide. And if we can't make decisions in this structure of government and parliament, it's possible we need to go back to the people and ask them to decide."