Knesset passes bills shrinking Supreme Court powers and strengthening Shin Bet

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  March 15, 2023

The Knesset passed preliminary readings on two bills to shrink the Supreme Court’s authority and allow intelligence services to gather personal data from travelers.

On Tuesday, March 14, the Knesset [Israeli parliament] passed a first reading of a new bill that would allow the government to overrule decisions made by the Israeli Supreme Court. The bill also places the authority to declare a Prime Minister’s incapacity to govern solely in the hands of the government or the Knesset, which is currently the most right-wing government in Israeli history. 

The bill suggests that a PM is only considered incapable in the case of physical and mental incapability, meaning that charges of corruption, bribery, fraud, and breach of trust — charges which still linger over Netanyahu — would not be enough to remove a PM from power.

During the same Knesset hearing on Tuesday, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee voted to move for second and third readings of a bill that would empower Israeli intelligence agencies by giving them access to “personal information from airlines with regard to passengers on flights entering, exiting or passing through the State of Israel.” 

Bills submitted to the Knesset typically must pass through four “readings”  a “preliminary” reading followed by a “first,” “second,” and “third” reading  in order to be passed into law.

This new push by the Knesset for new draconian laws and policies is not only facilitating the ongoing colonization of Palestine but also targeting the Israeli public and empowering the Israeli security apparatus.

Implications of a weakened Supreme Court 

Israel has no written constitution, and is instead governed by a set of “Basic Laws.” This has historically allowed Israeli policy-makers to introduce new bills to reshape Israel’s government, which some say has progressively led to the current rightwing settler-led government. 

The aim of this most recent bill is to weaken the Supreme Court’s capacity to act as a check and balance on the legislative branch of the government. It is part of the overall judicial overhaul proposed by the Netanyahu government in recent months.

The Supreme Court has historically been discriminatory towards Palestinians in cases filed challenging Israel’s apartheid system and has even justified criminal practices condemned by the international legal system. However, it was also the only avenue available to Palestinians to challenge abusive policies on a case-by-case basis. So, any weakening of the judiciary will likely facilitate the impunity enjoyed by Jewish settlers, as well as further the annexation of Palestinian lands, as it will close the only remaining legal door, itself grievously insufficient, available to Palestinians.

Yet, for the settler-led government, this is only a happy by-product. Its main reason for pushing the bill is less concerned with Palestinians — whose oppression will continue unabated regardless of judicial reforms — as it is concerned with avoiding accountability for corruption charges, carving a new path for an authoritarian Israeli government.

“We are discussing an override clause that seeks to override the High Court of Justice as if it were an enemy of the state,” the Israeli MK and former Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, said during the Knesset meeting on Tuesday. “You are asking this evening to give yourselves unlimited power,” he emphasized.

Gantz, who took pride in bombing Gaza “back to the stone age,” went so far as to say that the majority vote of 61 for and 52 against constituted a “tyranny of the majority.”

Intelligence access to travelers’ personal data

On the same day as the Knesset’s Tuesday hearing, another bill titled “Powers for Collecting and Evaluating Data of Passengers Entering or Exiting Israel” passed its first reading. 

Chaired by the rightwing Likud parliamentarian, MK Yuli Yoel Edelstein, the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee introduced the bill, which the Israeli Knesset unanimously approved.

The bill will be used to collect the data of travelers through Israel in order to use them for “prosecuting terrorist activity,” “aviation security,” combating “illegal immigration,” protecting against epidemics, and identifying offenses bearing a penalty of three years’ imprisonment or more.

This bill further empowers two major units in Israel’s security system — the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal intelligence body, and the Mossad, Israel’s international intelligence agency. If the bill passes, the two agencies will be able to set up database extensions and manage them. 

The Israeli Shin Bet has been playing a pivotal role in the extrajudicial assassinations and executions of Palestinians in the last year and a half under the military assault dubbed Operation Break the Wave

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss