Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to say if he would abide by any potential Supreme Court ruling striking down his controversial judicial reform law, as Israelis agonize over a looming showdown between their government and the court.
“What you’re talking about is a situation, or potential situation, where in American terms, the United States’ Supreme Court would take a constitutional amendment and say that it’s unconstitutional, Netanyahu said. “That’s the kind of the kind of spiral that you’re talking about, and I hope we don’t get to that.”
The so-called “reasonableness” law is an amendment to one of Israel’s Basic Laws, which exist in place of a formal constitution. It passed the Knesset on Monday despite six months of protests and rare public criticism from the White House. It is the first stage in a wider package of measures that critics say will undermine democracy in Israel by weakening the judiciary’s ability to hold politicians in check.
The Supreme Court has said that it will hear appeals against the law in September.
Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel’s opposition National Unity party warned that if Netanyahu ignored an adverse ruling from the country’s top court, it would amount to a coup.
“In a democratic country, a prime minister respects and acts according to court rulings, no matter how much he disagrees with them,” Gantz said on Twitter. “There is no room for interpretation and gray areas – clear and smooth.”
“If Netanyahu, like any elected official, does not follow the court’s ruling, he will carry out a regime coup d’état that will change the nature of the regime in Israel, something that will negate his legitimacy to hold office.”
Netanyahu’s office issued a statement in an attempt to clarify his position on Friday, but cautioned there was no precedent for the Supreme Court blocking a Basic Law.
“Israeli governments always respect the court’s decisions and the court has always considered itself subject to basic laws to which it attributes the status of a constitution,” the statement read. “Like the majority of Israeli citizens, Prime Minister Netanyahu believes that it is necessary to continue to maintain these two principles together.” The statement accused the opposition of distorting his words.
US President Joe Biden has been unusually outspoken about the judicial overhaul proposal, suggesting it amounts to an erosion of democratic institutions and could undermine US-Israel relations.
Asked if he was expecting consequences from the United States for the bill’s passing, Netanyahu stressed that relations remained strong between the Biden White House and his government – the most far right and religious in Israel’s history.
“Look, we’re both interested in blocking Iran. We’re both interested in advancing peace. This is the reason I came back to serving for the sixth time as Israel’s Prime Minister. I think those goals are achievable, and they’re going to be achieved together between Israel and the United States. I think that will strengthen our alliances. not weaken,” he said.
Netanyahu also pointed to debate in the US over its own Supreme Court. “You have an internal debate in the United States right now, about the powers of the Supreme Court about whether it’s abusing its power, whether you should curtail it,” he said.
“Does that make the American democracy not a democracy? Does that make that debate unworthy? Does that make that that issue, a symbol of the fact that you’re moving to some dictatorship personally?” he said.
Israel’s new law strips the Supreme Court of the ability to reject some government decisions on the basis of the “reasonableness” standard. It was the first of the government’s major judicial reforms to be passed by the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The country has no upper chamber of the parliament, but it has a relatively strong Supreme Court. Netanyahu and his supporters argue the court has become too powerful, and that their overhaul would rebalance powers between the judiciary, lawmakers and the government.
“We don’t want a subservient court. We want an independent court, not an all powerful court and that’s the correction that we’re doing,” Netanyahu told Blitzer.
Netanyahu acknowledged however that the bill had sparked “a big debate.”
“I don’t want to minimize it. I also don’t want to minimize the concerns that people have, because many of them have been caught in this spiral of fear,” he said, adding “Israel is going to remain a democracy.”
Opponents say the Supreme Court is the only check on the power of the government and the Knesset, and warn that the reforms would erode Israeli democracy by granting Netanyahu and his government almost unfettered powers.
Critics have also accused Netanyahu of pushing the overhaul forward to protect himself from his own corruption trial, where he faces charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust – which he has denied.
Would the new law be used to fire the attorney general, currently overseeing the trial? “I can tell you that this is not going to happen because it needs the heads of all the coalition to agree to it and they’re not going to agree to it. It’s not happening,” he predicted.
Thousands of Israeli army reservists – the backbone of the Israeli military – are threatening not to show up for work over the new legislation, but Netanyahu appeared unfazed by the threat. “Yes, there is a big debate, but, and some of the former generals are leading an effort against this reform – That’s okay. It’s a legitimate thing,” he said.
“But in a democracy, the day that… former generals can force … democratically elected officials to stop legislation on this or that matter, I would say that’s the that’s the day that Israel really stopped being a democracy,” he said.
That said, he does not want to “minimize the concerns that people have because many of them have been caught in this spiral of fear,” he added. “Israel is going to remain a democracy. There are checks and balances.”