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Netanyahu reboots judicial reform, but sans override clause

The bill to empower the Knesset to reverse Supreme Court cancellation of government decisions is "out," the PM said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, April 10, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he is rebooting judicial reform legislation but will drop the most controversial part of the bill, the “override clause.”

The override clause, which would give the Israeli parliament the power to reverse the Supreme Court when it strikes down laws as “unconstitutional” is “out,” Netanyahu said in a June 29 interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Although only one aspect of judicial reform, “override” has been used pars pro toto to refer to the entire package of legislation, which includes changing the way judges are selected, reducing the power of the attorney general and other legal advisers, and abolishing the Supreme Court’s use of the standard of “reasonableness” to cancel government decisions.

“The override is only one part, and it’s not the most important part. I think today it’s become like a tag, a brand,” Aharon Garber, deputy head of the legal department at the Kohelet Policy Forum, a Jerusalem-based think tank, told JNS in November 2022.

“People really mean more than that. Israeli politicians, when they talk about ‘override,’ are talking about a whole host of changes that need to happen,” he said.

However, the override clause itself has come under fire from even the staunchest proponents of reform. Professor Moshe Koppel, chairman of Kohelet and one of the architects of the Netanyahu government’s judicial reform program, told JNS in March, “It is in fact an unusual thing, and it is the thing in this law that frightens people the most.”

Koppel predicted that some aspect of the override might be removed, or tempered, in negotiations with the political opposition.

Netanyahu also told the Journal that the government’s original plan for reform of judicial selection would be revised but not abandoned. “It’s very clear that the way of choosing judges is not going to be the current structure, but it’s not going to be the original structure,” he said.

In the current system, Supreme Court judges have veto power over the selection of new judges. Critics say this creates a lack of diversity of thought on the bench. Netanyahu’s government wants to adopt a more American system of selecting judges whereby elected officials are in charge.

Netanyahu also addressed other issues, including the growing ties between Iran and Russia, which the prime minister described as “a very disturbing relationship.”

“We’ve made our concerns known to the Russians,” he said.

He also said the Tehran-Moscow relationship is one reason that Israel is reluctant to supply weapons to Ukraine. “We’re concerned also with the possibility that systems that we would give to Ukraine would fall into Iranian hands and could be reverse-engineered. And we would find ourselves facing Israeli systems used against Israel.

“That’s not a theoretical threat because Western systems, anti-tank systems, for example, did exactly that journey. And we now find them on our borders with Hezbollah,” he added.

Addressing a question about U.S.-Israel ties and President Joe Biden’s failure to yet extend an offer to Netanyahu to visit Washington, the prime minister said, “This issue of the invitation clouds people’s views and actually their knowledge of what is happening with our two governments.

“Cooperation is stronger than it’s ever been under our two governments,” he said, noting the steady flow of senior U.S. officials who have visited Israel and his “regular” conversations with American leadership.

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