Israel’s High Court hears a challenge to a law that makes it harder to remove Netanyahu from office

Tia Goldenberg & Moshe Edri

AP  /  September 28, 2023

JERUSALEM – Israel’s Supreme Court on Thursday was hearing a challenge to a law that makes it harder to remove a sitting prime minister, which critics say is designed to protect Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who has been working to reshape the justice system while he is on trial for alleged corruption.

The hearing is part of several pivotal court challenges against a proposed package of legislation and government steps meant to alter the country’s justice system. It comes after months of turmoil in Israel over the plan and deepens a rift between Netanyahu’s government and the judiciary, which it wants to weaken despite unprecedented opposition.

Thursday’s hearing on the law, the second by the High Court, took place in front of an expanded 11-judge panel, underscoring the importance of the deliberations.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition — Israel’s most religious and nationalist ever — passed an amendment known as the “incapacitation law” in March which allows a prime minister to be deemed unfit to rule only for medical or mental health reasons. Under the amendment, only the prime minister or the government has the power to determine a leader’s unfitness.

The previous version of the law was vague about both the circumstances in which a prime minister could be deemed unfit, as well as who had the authority to declare it. But experts say the amendment expressly strips the attorney general, who historically wields the power to declare a prime minister unfit for office, of the ability to do so.

The attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, has told Netanyahu he was violating a conflict of interest agreement but has not indicated she might move toward declaring him unfit over that.

Critics say the law protects Netanyahu from being deemed unfit for office over claims that he violated the conflict of interest agreement by dealing with the legal overhaul while on trial for corruption charges. They also say the law is tailor-made for Netanyahu and encourages corruption.

Based on those criticisms, Thursday’s hearing is focusing on whether the law should come into effect after the next national elections and not immediately, so that it isn’t interpreted as a personalized law. A ruling is expected by January.

“We are trying to repeal the undemocratic and unconstitutional statute which allowed an unfit and improper prime minister to remain in his position. Actually, they built him a kind of a golden cage (so) that he will be protected from justice,” said Eliad Shraga, chairman of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, which is challenging the amendment.

Ahead of the hearing, dozens of protesters gathered outside Netanyahu’s private residence in Jerusalem, chanting “democracy,” while his allies defended the law. Simcha Rothman, a main driver of the overhaul, told Israeli Army Radio that the court’s decision to hear the case was harmful to Israeli democracy and challenging the law was akin to throwing out the results of a legitimate election.

“The moment the court determines the laws, then it is also the legislative branch, the judiciary and the executive branch,” he said. “This is an undemocratic reality.”

The government wants to weaken the Supreme Court and limit judicial oversight on its decisions, saying it wants to return power to elected lawmakers and away from what it sees as a liberal-leaning, interventionist justice system. The first major piece of the overhaul was passed in July and an unprecedented 15-judge panel began hearing arguments against it earlier this month.

The drive to reshape Israel’s justice system comes as Netanyahu’s trial for alleged corruption is ongoing. He is charged with fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three separate cases involving influential media moguls and wealthy associates. He denies wrongdoing, seeing the charges as part of a “witch-hunt” against him orchestrated by a hostile media and a biased justice system.

Experts and legal officials say a conflict of interest arrangement struck after Netanyahu was indicted is meant to limit his involvement in judicial changes. After the incapacitation law was passed, Netanyahu said his hands were no longer tied and that he was taking a more active role in the legal changes underway. That sparked a rebuke from Baharav-Miara, who said Netanyahu’s remarks and any further actions were “completely illegal and in conflict of interest.”

Critics say Netanyahu and his government are working to upend the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and setting Israel on a path toward autocracy. The overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises, deepening longstanding societal divisions between those who want Israel to be a Western-facing liberal democracy and those who want to emphasize the country’s more conservative Jewish character.

Netanyahu has moved forward with the overhaul despite a wave of opposition from a broad swath of Israeli society. Top legal officials, leading economists and the country’s booming tech sector have all spoken out against the judicial changes, which have sparked opposition from hundreds of military reservists, who have said they will not serve so long as the overhaul remains on the table. Tens of thousands of people have protested every Saturday for the last nine months.

Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Julia Frankel contributed to this report from Jerusalem


Top Israeli court hears challenges to law limiting grounds for PM’s removal

Reuters  /  September 28, 2023  

JERUSALEM – Israel’s Supreme Court heard arguments on Thursday against a law passed by the ruling coalition limiting conditions for any removal of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from office, in the latest showdown among branches of government to grip the nation.

Political watchdog groups and an opposition party have challenged the March 23 amendment to a quasi-constitutional “Basic Law”, which Netanyahu’s own attorney-general described as designed to preserve his tenure amid a long-running graft trial.

The law’s proponents say it is meant to safeguard any democratically elected leader from a wrongful ouster.

Eleven of the Supreme Court’s 15 judges convened for the televised hearing, presided over by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, who retires next month. She has openly criticized a judicial overhaul sought by Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition.

In a statement, Justice Minister Yariv Levin condemned the hearing as “a de facto discussion of rescinding the results of the election” that returned Netanyahu to power in December. The premier denies wrongdoing in three criminal cases against him.

The full court bench is separately preparing a ruling on challenges to a July amendment voiding its power to overrule some cabinet-level decisions on the basis of “reasonableness”.

Critics say that law removed one of the last checks on the executive and a coalition-controlled parliament, in a country that has no written constitution. Netanyahu argued for redress of what he calls overreach by an unrepresentative judiciary.

Next month, the court is due to hear appeals relating to the convening of a committee for appointing judges, delayed due to a dispute over a government bid to shake up its membership.

A ruling on the “incapacity clause”, defining terms for deeming a premier unfit to serve, was not expected on Thursday.

The Supreme Court’s options include upholding the legislation as is, quashing it or ruling that it must not come into effect before the next parliamentary elections. Attorney-General Gali Baharav Miara has recommended the latter.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell; editing by Toby Chopra