Israel ratifies law limiting conditions for a Netanyahu removal

Al-Jazeera  /  March 23, 2023

The opposition says the law may shield incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu from any fallout from his corruption trials.

Israel has ratified a law limiting the circumstances in which a prime minister can be removed, despite worries that it may be meant to shield the incumbent Benjamin Netanyahu from any fallout from his corruption trials.

By a 61-to-47 final vote on Thursday, the Knesset approved the bill, under which prime ministers can only be deemed unfit and compelled to step aside if the Knesset or three-quarters of cabinet ministers declare them so on physical or psychological grounds.

The amended definition for the “incapacity” of the prime minister is among a number of legislative measures proposed by the religious-nationalist coalition that have tipped Israel into crisis, with the opposition arguing that judicial independence is in peril and the coalition claiming the proposals aim to push back against Supreme Court overreach and restore balance among branches of government.

“Declaring the Prime Minister’s incapacity … against the PM’s will, while he is physically and mentally competent to perform his post, serves in practice as an annulment of the election results and democratic process,” the explanatory notes to the proposed amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional “Basic Law” read.

The stipulations fleshed out the Basic Law guidance in the event of a non-functioning prime minister, which previously lacked details on circumstances that may give rise to such situations.

According to the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute, the rule had meant that Netanyahu could possibly be declared incapable by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, should she perceive an attempt by him to halt the three court cases against him.

The new law precludes this, IDI senior researcher Amir Fuchs said, adding that he had considered such a finding by Bararav-Miara to be an unlikely “extreme case”.

Baharav-Miara – who was appointed by the former, centrist Israeli government – said last month that Netanyahu must stay out of his coalition’s push for judicial changes because of what she deemed a conflict of interest arising from his trials.

Baharav-Miara’s deputy, Gil Limon, voiced misgivings over the incapacity bill during a Knesset review session on Tuesday.

“What we see before our eyes is a cluster of legislation elements that are most troubling and are being advanced at great speed,” Limon said, according to an official transcript.

“They have the potential to serve the personal interests of a man regarding the outcomes of legal proceedings he is facing.”

Netanyahu denies all charges against him and has cast the trials as a politicized bid to force him from office.

Shutdown protests

Meanwhile, Israeli protesters have pressed ahead with weekly demonstrations against the plan by the far-right government to weaken the independence of the judiciary, pushing back against Netanyahu after he rejected a compromise proposal from President Isaac Herzog that was meant to defuse the crisis.

Thousands of Israelis geared up on Thursday for a day of demonstrations, referred to as the “national day of paralysis”, with large crowds expected on the streets of major cities.

The protests aim to disrupt traffic on the main highways leading to Ben Gurion Airport in anticipation of a trip by Netanyahu to the UK. Last week, hundreds of protesters arrived at the airport in an attempt to disrupt Netanyahu’s departure to Germany.

Protests are also planned in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak – where several coalition Knesset members live – raising fears of potential clashes and violence, according to Israeli media.

The drive by Netanyahu’s government to enact sweeping changes to Israel’s courts has sparked domestic uproar and alarm among the country’s Western allies.

If the initial proposal passes, it would mean greater government sway in selecting judges and limit the power of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation.



Israel passes law protecting Netanyahu as protests continue

Tia Goldenberg

AP  /  March 23, 2023

TEL AVIV, Israel –  Israel’s parliament on Thursday passed the first of several laws that make up its contentious judicial overhaul as protesters opposing the changes staged another day of demonstrations aimed at ringing an alarm over what they see as the country’s descent toward autocracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition approved legislation that would protect the Israeli leader from being deemed unfit to rule over his corruption trial and claims of a conflict of interest surrounding his involvement in the legal changes. Critics say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu, encourages corruption and deepens a gaping chasm between Israelis over the judicial overhaul.

The legal changes have split the nation between those who see the new policies as stripping Israel of its democratic ideals and those who think the country has been overrun by a liberal judiciary. The government’s plan has plunged the nearly 75-year-old nation into one of its worst domestic crises.

“Either Israel will be a Jewish, democratic and progressive state or religious, totalitarian, failing, isolated and closed off. That’s where they are leading us,” Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister and a prominent supporter of the protest movement, told Israeli Army Radio.

The opposition is rooted in broad swaths of society — including business leaders and top legal officials. Even the country’s military, seen as a beacon of stability by Israel’s Jewish majority, is enmeshed in the political conflict, as some reservists are refusing to show up for duty over the changes. Israel’s international allies have also expressed concern.

On Thursday, protesters launched a fourth midweek day of demonstrations. They blocked major thoroughfares, set tires ablaze near an important seaport and draped a large Israeli flag and a banner with the country’s Declaration of Independence over the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Police said they made several arrests around the country. Shikma Bressler, one of the protest leaders, was among those arrested, organizers said.

Protests were planned later in the day in a large ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv. The demonstration’s organizers say it is meant to drive home to that community that their rights are in danger under the overhaul. Ultra-Orthodox leaders see the demonstration in their community as provocative.

The overhaul crisis has magnified a longstanding rift between secular Jewish Israelis and religious ones over how much of a role religion should play in their day-to-day lives. Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in government are central drivers of the overhaul because they believe the courts are a threat to their traditional way of life. In contrast, secular opponents to the changes fear they will open the door to religious coercion.

In addition to Thursday’s demonstrations, tens of thousands of people have been showing up for weekly protests each Saturday night for more than two months.

Netanyahu’s government rejected a compromise proposal earlier this month meant to ease the crisis. It said that it would slow the pace of the changes, pushing most of them to after a month-long parliamentary recess in April.

But the government was plowing forward on a key part of the overhaul, which would grant the government control over who becomes a judge. The government says it amended the original bill to make the law more inclusive, but opponents rejected the move, saying the change was cosmetic and would maintain the government’s grip over the appointment of judges. The measure was expected to pass next week.

The law to protect Netanyahu passed 61-47 in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

It stipulates that a prime minister can only be deemed unfit to rule for health or mental reasons and that only he or his government can make that decision. It comes after the country’s attorney general has faced growing calls by Netanyahu opponents to declare him unfit to rule over his legal problems. The attorney general has already barred Netanyahu from involvement in the legal overhaul, saying he is at risk of a conflict of interest because of his corruption trial.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel, a good governance organization, said it was challenging the law in court.

Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in a series of scandals involving wealthy associates and powerful media moguls. He denies wrongdoing and dismisses critics who say he could find an escape route from the charges through the legal overhaul his government is advancing.

The government says the changes are necessary to restore a balance between the executive and judicial branches, which they say has become too interventionist in the way the country is run.

Critics say the government, Israel’s most right-wing ever, is pushing the country toward authoritarianism with its overhaul, which they say upends the country’s fragile system of checks and balances.

Rights groups and Palestinians say Israel’s democratic ideals have long been tarnished by the country’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of lands the Palestinians seek for an independent state and the treatment of Palestinian Israeli citizens, who face discrimination in many spheres.