Bill limiting NGO power at High Court rejected

PM: Distortions in judicial system need to be fixed, but I will protect the courts’ independence.

MK Danny Danon 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MK Danny Danon 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Ministerial Committee  on Legislation rejected a bill limiting nongovernmental organizations’ ability to petition the High Court, though Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said in Sunday’s cabinet meeting that there were “distortions” in the current judicial system that must be fixed.
The initiative by Likud MKs Danny Danon and Yariv Levin sought to impose regulations to define which “public petitioners” – NGOs or individuals – may file petitions with the High Court of Justice. The parameters for such “public petitions” would include the case being significant to the country’s general public, and the petitioning NGO or group disclosing all of its foreign funding sources to the court.
Earlier this month, when Danon proposed the bill, he said that “left-wing organizations petition the High Court on issues in which no one was harmed and they have no connection to the general public, leading [West Bank settlement] outposts to be dismantled even when no Arab claims the land. We cannot let anti-Israel elements that are acting against the State of Israel enter the High Court’s gates.”
Danon’s and Levin’s bill may still be brought to the Knesset for a preliminary reading on Wednesday, but without the Ministerial Committee’s approval – i.e., coalition support – it is unlikely to pass.
On Sunday morning, Netanyahu defended the courts, while adding that there was room to improve them.
“Israeli democracy is strong, but its strength does not exempt us from having to protect it. Therefore, I announced that I oppose the bill that will limit High Court petitions against the state,” he said.
“I will act this way any time a law reaches my table that could harm the independence of the judiciary in Israel,” Netanyahu declared. “I want to make clear: The courts in Israel are among the cornerstones of democracy.”
The prime minister said the court system was an “important, healthy and essential institution for the continuation of our democratic life here.”
“This does not contradict the need to fix distortions that have occurred over the years in every public sphere, and we will fix them responsibly and seriously without getting carried away,” he said.
“I understand why the prime minister decided to reject the bill,” Danon said on Sunday, “but I still think that even the prime minister would agree that we must find ways to stop the cheapening of the High Court by political groups, many of which are antagonistic to Israel and take advantage of its democracy to harm the country.”
After the ministerial committee rejected the bill, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi) said that “the problem is not who petitions the High Court; rather, it is the group of judges.”
He asserted that “we must act so that the Supreme Court reflects the variety of viewpoints in the nation, but this bill does not contribute [to this effort] and is not appropriate.”
Human rights lawyers welcomed the ministerial committee’s vote against the bill, which they had slammed as designed to harm the High Court.
Attorney Michael Sfard of Yesh Din – Volunteers for Human Rights, which assists Palestinians in legal actions against alleged land infractions, had strongly opposed the bill.
“The High Court of Justice is undoubtedly an institution that helps the minority and checks majority rule,” Sfard said. “The proposed legislation seeks to destroy this important element of Israeli democracy.”
Attorney Dan Yakir, legal adviser for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, said the bill would damage the High Court’s powers and was “part of the continued delegitimization campaign against human rights organizations.”
According to Yakir, the bill was “legally unnecessary” because the High Court had developed extensive case law on locus standi, the ability of a petitioner to demonstrate its sufficient connection to and harm from a law it was challenging in court.
“The court already has the tools to deal with inappropriate petitions,” Yakir said.
The Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, has several functions, including exercising judicial review over the various branches of government, and is empowered by the Basic Law: The Judiciary to “grant relief in the interests of justice.”
The High Court is a court of first instance for petitions against the legality of decisions made by state authorities, including local authorities, and can also rule on petitions that call into question the constitutionality of laws approved by Knesset.
The Ministerial Committee on Legislation has yet to come to a final decision regarding two other bills that would limit NGOs. One would levy a 45- percent tax on donations from foreign governments, while the other would limit such contributions to NIS 20,000. The committee originally approved both bills for government support, a decision appealed by a group of cabinet members led by Minister-without-Portfolio Bennie Begin (Likud).
Begin warned the Likud MKs who have been proposing controversial legislation that their behavior could harm the party in the next election.
“Being a ruling party requires understanding that there are limits to power, and recognizing the rights of the minority,” Begin wrote in a column in Israel HaYom.
“Being a ruling party requires following the golden rule of Hillel the Elder: ‘That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,’” he continued. “As we have seen in the past, a ruling party that embarrasses some of its supporters with its powerpolitics will in the end be banished from power.”
Reacting to Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor’s threat to quit if legislation that harmed the courts passed, Begin told Army Radio that questions about his own future were irrelevant because such bills would not be approved.
Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.