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Knesset passes law to shield prime minister from court-ordered leave of absence

Part of the coalition's judicial reform push, the amendment to Israel’s Basic Law: The Government passes by a vote of 61 for and 47 against.

The Knesset Assembly Hall, March 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
The Knesset Assembly Hall, March 13, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Israel’s parliament on Wednesday passed a law preventing the Supreme Court from declaring a sitting premier unfit to serve and thus forcing him to take a leave of absence.

The bill, an amendment to Basic Law: The Government, passed its second and third readings after a long debate by a vote of 61 to 47.

Introduced by Likud MK Ofir Katz, parliamentary whip for the coalition and who chairs the Special Committee on Amendments to Basic Law, the legislation is part of the coalition’s judicial reform push.

The amendment stipulates that only the government has the authority to declare a sitting prime minister unfit to serve, and then only in the case of physical or mental incapacity.

According to the law, a premier can remove himself from office by notifying the government and the Knesset Speaker, with the approval of two-thirds of the Knesset members. Alternatively, a three-fourths majority can declare the prime minister unfit for office and order a temporary leave of absence.

In the latter scenario, a three-fifths Knesset majority can demand that the premier convene a special Cabinet meeting within three days from receipt of the request, or at a later date set by the lawmakers. Should the prime minister fail to do so, the Knesset secretary must convene it immediately, with the acting prime minister presiding.

The government’s decision in this case will remain valid for three days, and will be submitted to the House Committee for approval by a majority of two thirds of its members. If the prime minister was declared unfit for health reasons, the committee must base its decision on a professional medical opinion and can order a leave of absence of no more than seven days.

The leave of absence can be extended by up to 21 days by an 80-MK majority, up to a maximum of 100 days.

The amendment’s explanatory notes state that “declaring the Prime Minister’s incapacity when this determination is made against the PM’s will, while he is physically and mentally competent to perform his post, serves in practice as annulment of the election results and the democratic process.”

Among the law’s immediate effects is protecting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from being ordered to take a leave of absence by Israel’s Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara due to conflict of interest; Netanyahu is overseeing the coalition’s judicial reform push while on trial.

Last month, Baharav-Miara warned Netanyahu not to interfere in the government’s judicial reform proposals due to this conflict of interest.

Netanyahu denies the corruption charges against him, calling them politicized attempts to remove him from office.

According to the amendment’s sponsor MK Katz, that the law provides “stability” by not allowing for a prime minister to be removed from office against his will.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid slammed the law in a Twitter post which also featured a screenshot of Netanyahu and Israel’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin smiling and laughing after the vote.

“Like thieves in the night, the coalition has now passed an obscene and corrupt personal law against an unfounded rumor about recusal. The citizens of Israel know—just before the holidays, while the cost of living is skyrocketing, once again Netanyahu only cares about himself.”

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