Israel's High Court Is Last Line of Defense When the Government Collapses

Haaretz Editorial
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Chief Justice Esther Hayut sits in the High Court of Justice, Jerusalem, October 27, 2020.
Chief Justice Esther Hayut sits in the High Court of Justice, Jerusalem, October 27, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Haaretz Editorial

An expanded panel of the High Court of Justice, headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, will convene Tuesday to hear petitions asking it to overturn an increase in the state budget of 11 billion shekels ($3.3 billion), on the grounds that it was enacted through “abuse of a Basic Law.”

The ultra-Orthodox parties’ threats to topple the government, combined with the dispute over the budget between Likud and Kahol Lavan, led to the passage several months ago of the so-called “Hauser compromise,” in which the Knesset effectively passed temporary legislation as a Basic Law to increase the “continuing budget” from 2019 by 11 billion shekels. This compromise enabled the government to continue operating without an approved budget for 2020, and to give the ultra-Orthodox 300 million shekels from the approved increase.

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Some members of the cabinet hoped that calling the legislation a Basic Law would prevent the High Court from intervening in the hasty law the Knesset passed on the night of August 24. But this time the court wasn’t deterred.

Israel has been operating without a legally approved budget since 2018. In this situation, the Basic Law on the State Economy allows the government to operate only within the framework of a “continuing budget.” This means that every month, it can spend one-twelfth of the last approved budget, but only for essential expenditures mandated by law, agreement or treaty. These rules were codified in a Basic Law because the state budget is the government’s most important tool of governance. That’s also why the budget has to be approved by the Knesset as a whole and why the Knesset Finance Committee must approve every line of it.

The drafters of Israel’s “constitution,” i.e., the Basic Laws, rightly decided that a cabinet and Knesset that aren’t able to pass a budget must dissolve. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, abetted by his toady, Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, isn’t a man to let a Basic Law stand in his way. The Netanyahu government has taken the budget hostage and is doing as it pleases with it, with no transparency, no legislation and a crying waste of public funds that are being spent on purposes not enshrined in the Basic Law.

When it comes to good governance, it’s hard to imagine a greater catastrophe than riding roughshod over the bureaucratic gatekeepers and exploiting the public’s exhaustion to capitulate to extortion by special-interest groups, including giving hundreds of millions of shekels to ultra-Orthodox educational institutions by defining this money as an “advance.”

The government has already managed to waste that 11 billion shekels, so a month ago, it arranged another pot for itself, this time totaling 52 billion shekels. And this time, too, it was enacted in a temporary Basic Law, with no approved budget, no policy and no Knesset approval of its spending priorities. This money will also be the source for Netanyahu’s proposed grants to every Israeli, i.e., his planned election bribe.

Now that the government has collapsed, the Knesset has dissolved and the gatekeepers at the treasury have quit, the High Court is the only institution left that can stop the disaster currently unfolding in Israel.

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

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