Netanyahu to US media: Judicial overhaul is moving ahead without ‘override clause’

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Wall Street Journal in an interview published Thursday that the so-called “override clause” — one of the most contentious elements of his government’s judicial overhaul plan — would not be advancing.

“It’s out,” Netanyahu told the newspaper, adding that he is “attentive to the public pulse, and to what I think will pass muster.”

His comments echoed remarks he made in March and April noting that a blanket override clause was no longer on the table.

Earlier this year, the government advanced a slate of legislation aimed at radically limiting the judicial branch’s checks on power. While Justice Minister Yariv Levin had originally floated the idea of allowing the Knesset to override decisions by the High Court, the bill that was ultimately put forward would have allowed the Knesset to pass legislation that was immune from judicial review, which Hebrew media continued to refer to as an “override clause.”

In March, Netanyahu froze the slate of bills that his government had quickly advanced through the Knesset in order to allow for compromise talks. But earlier this month, the government restarted its legislative push as the talks foundered.

Passing the override clause was a coalition demand of the Haredi parties, who have long been angered by the High Court’s rulings on certain issues relating to their community, including repeatedly striking down legislation that exempts them from military service. United Torah Judaism Minister Meir Porush told the Makor Rishon newspaper on Thursday that dropping the override clause would be a betrayal of his party’s agreement with Netanyahu.

Illustrative: Supreme court justices arrive for a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu told the Journal that his government will still be moving ahead with a plan to exert much greater political control over the Judicial Selection Committee, which appoints judges and Supreme Court justices, but that the formulation of the new bill was not yet clear.

Currently, the government is pushing forward with an element of the overhaul relating to the “reasonable clause,” advancing a bill that would bar the court system from using a test of “reasonableness” in ruling against decisions and appointments made by all elected officials.

The Haaretz daily reported on Thursday that the chief architects of the overhaul, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution Committee chair Simcha Rothman, are working on a compromise version of the “reasonableness bill.”

According to the report, a new version of the legislation is likely to allow judges to shoot down as “unreasonable” decisions by mayors and local authority heads, as well as to use the same test to rule against decisions to fire certain gatekeeping positions, including that of the attorney general.

Likud Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said Wednesday that the “reasonable” test was what was preventing the government from firing Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who has spoken out against a number of key clauses in the overhaul.

Netanyahu’s comments to the Journal came after outgoing US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said he does not believe the government will unilaterally advance the entirety of its legislative package to overhaul the judiciary.

United States Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides speaks at the Herzliya Conference on May 22, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“I do not believe we’re going to wake up and they’re going to do all of this legislation unilaterally… My hope is that they will not do everything unilaterally because I think the reaction here would be quite dramatic,” Nides said on Tuesday during a virtual event organized by the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Nides went on to maintain that the overhaul “was never [Netanyahu’s] major objective [when he became] prime minister. His coalition partners have a different objective,” but the premier is more interested in combating Iran and securing a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia.

In his  WSJ interview, Netanyahu said that US-Israel relations remain strong despite the lack of a White House invitation from US President Joe Biden.

“I think it may take some time, but I think, of course, I should expect to meet President Biden,” Netanyahu said.

“This issue of the invitation clouds people’s views,” he added. “In fact, the security cooperation, the military cooperation and the intel cooperation, including cyber, is stronger than it’s ever been under our two governments.”

Then-US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Ariel Schalit/AP/File)

Netanyahu also pushed back against the notion that his far-right government is a stumbling block to potentially normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.

“I think peace is possible with additional Arab states, effectively ending the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said. “And I think that would lead to peace with the Palestinians too.” Of his coalition allies, Netanyahu said that “they joined me. I didn’t join them. And ultimately, policy is determined by me and my colleagues in the Likud.”

On Wednesday US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the ongoing unrest in the West Bank, including a series of vigilante attacks carried out by settlers against Palestinians, makes any Saudi deal close to impossible.

“We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements, as well as to expand them to include potentially Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said.

In a call on Tuesday with Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Blinken said that the US is extremely concerned about ongoing settler violence, which has received tacit approval from some of the most extremist elements of Netanyahu’s coalition.

In the interview published Thursday, Netanyahu reiterated his condemnation of such attacks, calling them “misguided, unacceptable and criminal,” and adding that he “will not tolerate any of this vigilantism. The ones who have the monopoly on the use of violence are the military and our security forces, not any individual.”

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