Israel's Top Court Overrides a Basic Law as Knesset Speaker Decries a ‘Coup’

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Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Isaac Amit in court in February.
Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and Justice Isaac Amit in court in February.Credit: Emil Salman

Right-wing politicians slammed the Israeli High Court of Justice Sunday after it ruled that the amendment of a Basic Law last summer was invalid, saying the court had overstepped its boundaries.

The amendment extended the deadline for passing the annual state budget by 100 days, postponing the automatic dissolution of the Knesset. In the end, the controversial move did not help; the budget was not passed and the Knesset dissolved itself in December, leading to the election in March.

“That [the government] did not pass a budget on the one hand, but approved large government expenditures (including the distribution of coalition funding) as if there was a budget on the other hand, constitutes an invalid use of constitutive authority that is unacceptable,” wrote Supreme Court President Esther Hayut in the majority ruling.

Since the issue had become theoretical, “A notice of cancellation should be sufficient,” she wrote, but added, that if a similar amendment to the Basic Law on the State Economy was attempted, “The amendment can be expected to be struck down based on this notice.”

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin at the Knesset, last year.Credit: Danny Shem-Tov/Knesset Spokesperson's Office

Three of the nine justices who heard the petition – Noam Sohlberg, David Mintz and Yosef Elron – believed it should be dismissed.

In a statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party called the ruling “a serious blow to democracy” that “undermines the ability of the people to decide its fate and delivers another blow to governability, clarifying the need for a right-wing government that would put a brake on this dangerous trend, which a left-wing government with [Yesh Atid’s Yair] Lapid, Meretz and the Labor Party would only intensify.”

“We are witnessing a crazy event, as a group of six people don judicial robes to effect a coup,” said Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin. The ruling, he said, “Runs contrary to the most basic principles of the people’s sovereignty, the separation of powers and the rule of law. I will with all my strength stand against the effort to abolish democracy and to defend the status and authority of the Knesset.”

Religious Zionism Chairman Bezalel Smotrich said, “The High Court of Justice overturns a basic law without blinking an eye. ... This is ‘just’ a notice of cancellation but the precedent has been set. Now the High Court can strike down the [Basic Law on Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People] and essentially any law it doesn’t like. The solution is simple – do not obey its absurdities. There is no other way.”

Attorneys Hagai Kalai and Gaya Harari Heit, who represented petitioners New Contract and former MKs Stav Shaffir and Yael Cohen-Paran, said, “This is an important ruling, that establishes what ought to be self-understood – the Israeli constitution is not a personal enterprise and not subject to political horse-trading. We must hope that the ruling will halt the prevailing trend of recent years to change the rules of the democratic game time after time and will assure a stable and long-term constitution.”

Attorney Oshi Elmalich, director of the National Responsibility movement, which was also a petitioner in the case, said, “The High Court and its ruling are the public’s Iron Dome against the improper exploitation of basic laws and their circumvention by the government and government institutions. The High Court ruling is a mark of shame for a coalition that tramples on any governmental norm.”

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