Netanyahu Pulls Support for Plan to Restrict High Court Access

Prime Minister's Bureau issues statement Saturday night saying if bill passed, it would reduce ability to file public petitions against the state, and that PM 'will oppose any bill that entails undermining the independence of Israel's courts.'

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced yesterday that he would oppose a bill to restrict petitions to the High Court of Justice by nongovernmental organizations.

The announcement came after Netanyahu learned that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein planned to tell the cabinet this morning that he opposed the bill, and after Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor threatened to resign if it passed.

MK Dan Meridor - Olivier Fitoussi
Olivier Fitoussi

The bill was supposed to be discussed today by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, whose role is to decide whether the coalition should support or oppose it. But since Netanyahu is now urging all Likud ministers on the committee to vote against it, it has no chance of passing. And with the government opposed, it also has no chance of passing the Knesset.

A statement issued by the Prime Minister's Bureau last night noted that if the bill passed, it would likely reduce the ability to file public petitions against the state, and Netanyahu "will oppose any bill that entails undermining the independence of Israel's courts."

The statement was issued shortly after Meridor, in an interview with Channel 2 television, publicly threatened to resign if the government passed any laws limiting the High Court's activities.

Meridor said he was appalled by all "the talk of the court as a radical leftist elite," and that anyone seeking to undermine the Supreme Court must be stopped.

Asked why he remained in the cabinet, Meridor replied, "If people like me aren't there, there won't be a battle, just capitulation to this ill wind."

Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Atzmaut faction also opposed the bill. In a letter to Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, Agriculture Minister Orit Noked charged that it violated Likud's coalition agreement with Atzmaut and demanded that the bill be removed from the ministerial committee's agenda. "Maintaining the right of standing before the High Court in its present form is a black-and-white issue for all of us and accords with the principles of justice, law and tolerance on the basis of which the State of Israel was established," she wrote.

Currently, Israel has no restrictions on standing, or on who has the right to petition the court; anyone can petition the High Court on any issue. The bill, by Likud MKs Yariv Levin and Danny Danon, would impose various restrictions on public petitioners, meaning any individual or organization without a direct, personal interest in the case.

For instance, it would deny organizations the right to petition the court if they are not registered in Israel or don't conduct most of their activity in Israel. Public petitioners would also be barred from petitioning against government decisions that harmed specific individuals unless one of the affected individuals joined the petition. Also, public petitions would be limited to cases that either had important constitutional ramifications or caused concrete, substantive damage to the public. The latter criterion, according to the bill's sponsors, was meant both to prevent the court from being flooded with petitions on minor issues and to prevent "unreasonable intervention in governmental activity by the executive and legislative branches."

The bill would also require public petitioners that receive funding from a foreign government to give the court a report on their foreign financial backers, to allow the justices to verify that "interested or hostile parties" with "extraneous motives" weren't behind the petition.

Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer, whose organization's ability to petition the court would likely be reduced if the bill passed, blasted Netanyahu's conduct yesterday despite his decision to kill the bill. The prime minister's sudden opposition, he charged, is "pure hypocrisy. Netanyahu is playing a double game by opposing unrealistic bills ... but at the same time advancing other, more sophisticated proposals that weaken the court and change the rules laid down years ago. His opposition to this bill is just a fig leaf for the destruction of democracy by Netanyahu and his government."

Danon, the bill's cosponsor, responded to Meridor's threats by saying, "Anyone who deems the majority position in Likud unacceptable should draw the necessary conclusions about where he belongs politically. The door is open for Minister Meridor."

This is not the first time Netanyahu has moved to kill a controversial bill. Just two weeks ago, he iced a bill to allow the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to hold public hearings for Supreme Court candidates and to veto any nominee it deemed unsuitable.