For the Sake of Democracy, Israel Must Not Weaken Its High Court

Netanyahu is prepared to sacrifice the last assets of Israeli democracy to assure himself another term, and there’s no one in his government to stop him

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon at a cabinet meeting in the Knesset on April 15, 2018.
אלכס קולומויסקי

It’s no great comfort that the political crisis between the Likud and Kulanu parties, which fought over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposal to remove the High Court of Justice’s authority to invalidate laws, ended on a relatively weak note Sunday when Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon agreed to set up a ministerial committee to decide how to limit the court’s power.

On the eve of the country’s 70th anniversary, Netanyahu is prepared to sacrifice the last assets of Israeli democracy to assure himself another term, and there’s no one in his government to stop him – not even Kahlon, who, although he blocked Netanyahu’s far-reaching proposal, is still participating in the delegitimization of the High Court and in initiatives to “overcome” its rulings.

The fear of being labeled “leftist” has thrown the political system out of balance, with parties seemingly in a competition to see who can be more right wing. In this distorted worldview, the court is perceived as an entity seeking to limit the power of the right-wing government, making it a representative of the left and an enemy of the people.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut yesterday criticized the move to restrict the High Court’s power. “As we seek to take justifiable pride before ourselves and the world in 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 includes judicial oversight which protects the fundamental constitutional principles of the system,” she said.

But it doesn’t look like her critique interests Netanyahu, who apparently is investing all his political energy in figuring out the perfect grounds and timing for new elections. The date of the next elections changes in accordance with estimates of when the attorney general will decide whether to indict him for crimes of corruption, and the grounds for dissolving the Knesset will be a crisis enabling Likud to be portrayed as defending the right wing from the threats of the left.

Who would have believed that Netanyahu would take the toughest stance of all on “reining in” the court, bypassing Habayit Hayehudi from the right? Who would have believed that the proposal by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit – that if the High Court strikes down a law, the Knesset could re-legislate it with a majority of 70 MKs – would be considered a compromise, yet be rejected by Netanyahu in favor of a proposal allowing the High Court to invalidate legislation only by a panel of 15 justices voting unanimously?

All the efforts to reduce the court’s authority, from the override clause to the “British model,” are invalid and dangerous and should not be supported. The very fact that bills in this spirit are being proposed weakens the court, undermines its legitimacy and puts Israel’s democracy at risk.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.