With less than two weeks to form a government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is confronting an open rebellion from one of his party’s top vote-getters, former Education Minister Gideon Saar.
Saar on Thursday accused the prime minister of damaging Israel and their Likud Party by pushing for laws that could weaken Israel’s judiciary as he faces criminal indictments.
“Legislation like this has no benefit and does maximum harm,” he said on Israeli television.
Saar’s condemnation came during a week in which Israel has been roiled by allegations that Netanyahu aims to pass a law that would diminish the status of the Supreme Court and could grant him retroactive immunity in three corruption cases.
Saar, an attorney who has been open about his ambition to succeed Netanyahu as party leader, holds Likud’s top elected position after the prime minister and the parliament speaker.
The daily newspaper Haaretz reported this week that the proposed bill is detailed in an appendix of the agreement Netanyahu is circulating among potential partners in a new governing coalition — one he is struggling to put together after narrowly winning last month’s election. The plan, the report said, would neutralize the court’s judicial review function, possibly providing the prime minister immunity from the cases in which he faces looming indictments.
Netanyahu pushed back against the report.
In a Facebook post Monday, the prime minster accused the media of “misleading leaks and distorted commentary including some incorrect proposals.” But he did not specify inaccuracies.
He went on to say he supports “a strong and independent Court — but that does not mean an omnipotent Court.”
He said he hoped to restore the “balance” of power between branches of government that is “required to pass laws that have been disqualified or delayed in the past, laws the public expects us to pass: the expulsion of terrorists’ families, the death penalty for terrorists and a deportation law” for migrants in the nation illegally.
The three measures mentioned by Netanyahu are high on the right wing’s legislative wish list. But Israeli courts have blocked only a law that would have permitted deportation of immigrants in Israel illegally; the others failed to clear the legislative process.
In a statement published after Saar’s declaration, the Likud Party said, “It is not for nothing that the leftist media keeps embracing Gideon Saar because he doesn’t miss an opportunity to undermine Netanyahu and try to topple him.”
Making public rumors that have been circulating in Jerusalem all week, Saar asserted that “other Likud members are also disturbed by this sort of legislation.”
However, Saar defended the prime minister’s right to continue in office even after indictments have been served. “The law does not forbid it,” Saar said.
According to the local reporting, the plan being circulated would neutralize the Supreme Court’s judicial review function, preventing it from overruling legislation by the parliament, or Knesset, or decisions passed by the Cabinet. That could prevent the court from blocking legislative efforts to shield Netanyahu from pending indictments.
The Times has not seen the draft coalition agreement, but has confirmed it through several people with knowledge of the language who asked not to be named while talking about the plan. And a wide range of ministerial hopefuls have spoken publicly about it.
The current minister for regional security, Tzachi Hanegbi, of the Likud Party, defended potential changes in Israel’s immunity law in a radio interview Thursday morning. Bezalel Smotrich of the United Right faction is championing legislative changes.
Yossi Yonah, a former Labor Party member of Knesset and a philosophy professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said Netanyahu had embarked upon an “unholy alliance.”
“To save himself, the prime minister has become an instrument for a wider agenda that completely discards the nature of Israeli democracy,” Yonah said.
Yonah, an expert on politics and ethics, said, “Israel appears to be in a process we see in many countries right now, in which the nature of its aspirations is changing from ‘liberal democracy’ to ‘majoritarian democracy.’”
But he noted that Israel’s case stands out because the move is “in the service of one man, with one aim, to save the ruler.”
“The bill would turn Israel into an authoritarian regime,” he said.
Netanyahu is scheduled to appear at a pre-indictment hearing before Atty. Gen. Avichai Mandelblit on July 10. Mandelblit in February announced his intention to indict Netanyahu on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three corruption cases. Netanyahu’s attorneys have requested a delayed date for the hearing.
Yair Lapid, an opposition leader, on Monday called on Mandelblit to cancel the hearing and proceed directly to trial. Netanyahu, Lapid charged, “doesn’t really want a hearing … he needs time to form his ‘get out of jail’ government.”
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin this week granted Netanyahu’s request for a two-week extension to form the government, which according to the new timetable must be announced by May 29.
Netanyahu’s possible coalition partners are not making it easy. Late Wednesday, he decried the “absurd” requests they have presented.
"The parties are making impossible demands,” the prime minister grumbled. “One faction asked for four ministries and budgetary demands we just do not have. If we had a budget like that of the United States, maybe.”
Likud holds 36 of the 120 Knesset seats. Netanyahu needs an alliance of at least 61 seats in order to configure the next government.
Many observers believe Netanyahu is piggybacking his own political survival on the banner of judicial reform.
Daniel Friedman, a former minister of justice, said in a radio interview that Israel “does need considerable judicial reform, but it is inconceivable that that would be bound up with personal legislation.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut on Tuesday resorted to a Nazi-era reference in an implicit condemnation.
“Preserving the principle of judicial independence and the independence of judges is a cornerstone of any democracy,” she said during a planned speech to the Israel-Germany Jurists Assn.
Speaking at a conference in Nuremberg, Germany, she noted it was a city in which “the rule of law descended to one of its worst moments in human history … in a nation that had enacted one of the most advanced constitutions for the protection of human rights and freedoms.”
But calls for reform of the relationship among the judicial, legislative and executive branches have become commonplace in Israel’s right wing.
Yair Shamir, a former minister of agriculture, said in an interview that judicial interference in Israel hampers basic ministerial functions to the extent that “it’s anarchy.”
“There is no doubt we need a new equilibrium for the branches of government,” he said. “It’s a flaw in our system and it needs to be fixed.”
However, he cautioned that “it can’t be done unless it is clear all efforts are being made for the good of the state. And we’re not there yet.”
Limor Livnat, a former minister for Netanyahu, tweeted on Wednesday: “I voted for the Likud but in no way do I support immunity or the override clause or other similar propositions.”
Veteran political analyst Amnon Abramovich said changing the balance of power was discussed even before the elections.
“It’s being discussed in all the coalition negotiations. But even when there is an agreement, don’t expect to see a clause protecting Netanyahu written out in black on white,” he said in an interview.
The proposed legislation, Abramovich predicts, will be presented to the public and Knesset as a new “‘governance law’ intended to prevent the Supreme Court from meddling.”