The issue has been brewing for quite some time. The far-right and ultra-Orthodox parties in prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s anticipated coalition government are unhappy with several rulings of Israel’s Supreme Court. They want to put a system in place that will allow a simple majority of the Knesset to overrule court decisions, even those that find a particular law passed by the Knesset or an administrative ruling of a government ministry to be unconstitutional or to violate basic human rights.
Earlier this year — at a time when the hard-right and haredi parties were plotting in opposition — legislation was being considered to change Israel’s current multitiered vetting and approval process for the selection and appointment of Supreme Court justices. The new approach would have justices chosen by the parties in power and confirmed by a majority vote in the Knesset so that the dominant political leadership of the day would control the entire process. Early last summer, Likud and its right-wing allies chose not to propose the change. Instead, they decided to wait to see what a new election would bring.
And that gamble paid off. But rather than promoting an approach which would enable them to pack the court with favored justices, the hard right is pursuing a plan to authorize a simple majority of the Knesset to override any Supreme Court ruling.
The proposed override law is troubling. An override law would significantly erode the Supreme Court’s independence and severely limit the court’s ability to block laws or governmental decisions that are deemed illegal or in violation of human rights. Instead, the very politicians who passed the problematic law or regulation will be able to re-pass the law and override the Supreme Court with a simple majority vote.
Each of the major factions in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition has reason to support an override law. For the radical right, the Knesset could bypass rulings placing limits on the confiscation of land owned by Palestinians in the West Bank. For the ultra-Orthodox, the law would provide a path to avoid troubling rulings on military service by haredi Jews and assure continued funding with no supervision for the ultra-Orthodox education system. And finally, for Likud and Netanyahu, an override law could have significant impact on continued pursuit by the government of corruption charges against elected officials, including Netanyahu.
When reports of coalition agreement on the override law became public, more than 100 law professors and lecturers from Israel’s leading universities and academic institutions signed a letter opposing the law and warning that it “will seriously damage the protection of human rights.” The letter also predicted that the bill would “transform the citizens of Israel from citizens with rights, whom the Knesset must respect, and the court protect, to those who are subject to the mercy of the political majority at any given moment.”
The eyes of the world are carefully watching how Netanyahu navigates the competing political demands of his empowered and doctrinaire coalition partners. Taking steps to neuter an independent judiciary and impose rule by political fiat is bad government and even worse politics.