Political unrest in Israel over the government’s judicial reform plan won’t lead to a civil war, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured NBC, in the latest in a series of interviews he has given to major American media outlets.
“There won’t be civil war – I guarantee you that,” Netanyahu told NBC correspondent Rafael Sanchez, insisting that his overhaul plan would strengthen the country’s democracy. Opponents of the plan, who have taken to the streets for the last weeks, have warned that it could transform Israel into a dictatorship.
“When the dust settles, people will see that Israel’s democracy has been strengthened and not weakened... People’s fears that have been stoked and whipped up I think will subside, and they’ll see that Israel is just as democratic as it was before and even more democratic,” Netanyahu said.
Correcting an 'imbalance in Israel's democracy'
The reform plan, he said, corrects an “imbalance in Israel’s democracy, where the judiciary has basically allocated to itself nearly all the powers of the executive branch and the legislature.”
He spoke just one week after Israel’s Knesset passed the first leg of the judicial reform plan by 64-0, with the entire opposition of the 120-member body taking the rare move to boycott the vote.
The bill curtailed some of the court’s powers by eliminating the clause that allowed the High Court of Justice to reject government decisions on the basis of unreasonableness, a common judicial tool used to combat political corruption.
Reviewing the law in September
Israel’s High Court is set to review the Law to Cancel the Reasonableness Standard on September 12, with a full panel of 15 justices.
Netanyahu in his media interviews has not promised to abide by their decisions, and has questioned the court’s legal right to perform judicial review.
Sanchez took up that issue with Netanyahu, asking “Will you abide by the court’s ruling on the law?”
“Remember what I said, I hope that they don’t strike it down,” Netanyahu replied, echoing a comment he made to CNN last week, when he explained that such a move would send the country into “unchartered territory.”
Netanyahu did clarify that Israeli governments should abide by High Court decisions, but seemed to indicate that he did not hold to that with respect to Basic Law amendments passed by the Knesset.
“We have to follow two rules: One is Israeli governments abide by the decisions of the Supreme Court. And at the same time, the Supreme Court respects the Basic Laws, which are the closest thing we have to a constitution. I think we should keep both principles, and I hope we do,” he said.
He equated it to a situation in which the US Supreme Court, charged with preserving the Constitution, would nullify a constitutional amendment. Such a step would be the equivalent of the US Supreme Court turning on itself, a move which “doesn’t make sense,” Netanyahu said, adding that he hoped it doesn’t happen in Israel.
Legal expert Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, took issue with Netanyahu’s statements to the media that overturning a Basic Law amendment voted on by the Knesset by a majority of 64 out of 120, was outside the court’s purview.
If that were correct, he claimed, then the Knesset would have unlimited power and, in a democracy, “no authority should be unlimited.”
It has never been the case in the country’s history that the Supreme Court has overturned Basic Law amendments, Fuchs said. The court has stated that it does have the power to do so, however, when a Basic Law amendment runs counter to the state’s core values, such as issues relating to democracy or the country’s Jewish ethnic national identity, Fuchs explained.
He also took issue with Netanyahu’s comparison between Basic Laws and amendments to the US Constitution. Such amendments are rare, and must be approved by the states, whereas the Knesset frequently amends the basic laws, noting that there have been at least 60 such amendments in the last 23 years, Fuchs said.
US Constitutional amendments also require two-thirds votes of both the House and the Senate, whereas here one is looking at votes taken by a simple vote of one parliamentary house, the Knesset, he added.
In his interview with NBC, Netanyahu also dismissed as undemocratic the actions of those reservists who have said they would end their volunteer service with the army as a result of the Knesset vote last week.
“Once Israel goes down that path and former generals can tell you ‘Listen, if you pass this legislation, or if you don’t do as we say, we’re going to incite military disobedience,’ then Israel stops being a democracy. That’s a real threat to democracy and I think we can’t accept it,” Netanyahu said.
He did not address the extent to which there is a tacit understanding in Israel that soldiers and reservists can refuse orders that run contrary to their moral conscience.
His predecessor, former prime minister and Likud Party head Ariel Sharon, famously said in the earlier part of his career that soldiers could disobey orders in certain situations, including when they felt it went against the state’s best interest.
A call on soldiers to refuse to follow orders was one of the central components of the campaign the Israeli Right waged against the 2005 IDF pullout from Gaza, in which they often quoted statements by Sharon to legitimize that call.