High Court rejects Likud petition to strike down Knesset committee setup: 'illegal'

The opposition has argued proportional representation of opposition MKs on key committees is the only way to ensure checks and balances against power grabs by the coalition.

 Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the faction meeting on Monday (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the faction meeting on Monday
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The High Court of Justice on Monday rejected the request of opposition MKs from the Likud and Shas parties to invalidate the Knesset committee assignments decided on by the coalition on July 12.

At a hearing on August 9, the panel of High Court President Esther Hayut, Justice Neal Hendel and Justice Uzi Vogelman had already blasted the opposition MKs themselves for failing to seek middle ground with the coalition.

Although the High Court’s final ruling also criticized the coalition for not being more forthcoming to the opposition and for only offering more reasonable compromises after the opposition’s July 28 petition was filed, the court said that the coalition’s negative regard for the opposition was not extreme enough to justify judicial intervention.

Rather, the High Court said that it would only intervene with internal Knesset processes if the coalition was taking more extreme measures, such as preventing opposition MKs from proposing laws or no-confidence motions.

Back at the August 9 hearing, Vogelman went as far as to suggest that the opposition MKs were trying to do a kind of a “coup” by refusing to negotiate with the government or show up at Knesset hearings, but instead were hoping the judicial branch would bail them out.

High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)High Court of Justice prepares for hearing on whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can form the next government, May 3, 2020 (credit: COURTESY HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE)

Traditionally, key committees, such as the Knesset Arrangements Committee and the committees on finance and law, give a small proportional edge to the coalition in representation.

In contrast, the current coalition gave itself a three-seat advantage for the Arrangements Committee and a two-seat advantage for each of the powerful finance, law and social welfare committees.

The justices had a long list of complaints with the petition.

First, they slammed the Likud MKs involved, David Bitan, Miri Regev, Keti Shitrit and Fateen Mulla, whose party has said it is against seeking judicial intervention on the issue.

Since the Likud Party opposes judicial intervention on the issue, Hayut pushed hard that this precluded individual Likud MKs from petitioning the High Court.

The petitioners’ lawyer, Ilan Bombach, responded that each individual MK has a right to serve on Knesset committees, and this combined with the Likud having a right to proportional representation gave them a right to file the petition.

In any event, he said, Shas MKs Moshe Arbel and Michael Malkieli had also petitioned on the issue, and they had the full support of their party.

Next, Bombach responded to Hayut’s allegation that the Likud had failed to properly negotiate with the coalition over a last-minute July 23 compromise offer and that the party’s conduct and boycott of the committees could preclude them from seeking judicial relief.

The Likud had negotiated over earlier offers, he said, and the July 23 offer was made with very little time to answer and a deadline leading into Shabbat, which showed that it was not a good-faith offer.

EVEN AFTER Bombach seemed to have answers for these issues, he had greater trouble when the justices noted that the relevant laws only explicitly guarantee the opposition proportional representation on the Knesset Arrangements Committee and when looking at the other committees holistically.

There was no explicit guarantee for proportional representation on any individual committee beyond the Arrangements Committee, they said.

To balance out its unusual advantage in certain committees, the coalition gave the opposition control of the State Control, Advancement of Women, Science and Technology and Absorption and Diaspora Affairs committees, including larger majorities than is usual on some of them.

Since that decision, the opposition as a whole has boycotted much of the Knesset’s committee work.

Further, the two parties’ petitions argued that the power of the committees in question was not comparable and that the current committee setup constituted “a severe harm to the substantive values underlying the foundations of the Israeli system of government.”

Essentially, they said proportional representation of opposition MKs on key committees was the only way to ensure checks and balances against power grabs by the coalition.

The petition also cited the Knesset legal adviser as opposing the coalition’s ratio of its members on key committees versus opposition members and declaring the move legally problematic.

However, the adviser had also strongly opposed High Court intervention since the setting up of committees is “at the heart of the political role” of the Knesset.

Regarding altering aspects of the Knesset setup, the Likud and Shas, while in power, tried to maintain the appearance of respecting traditions in the same way the coalition is trying to do, even though they also departed from tradition.

DURING THEIR years in power, the Likud supported giving a key seat on the Judicial Selection Committee, supposedly reserved for the opposition, to a right-wing opposition party that actually supported their viewpoint.

Though this technically fulfilled the idea of having an opposition member on the committee, that idea had substantively always been about ensuring diversity of viewpoints by giving the opposition seat to a major political party that had different views than the coalition.

Further, once that opposition party later joined the coalition, the seat was not given to a different opposition party.

This is one of the first times that the Likud in opposition is turning to the High Court to hold back coalition moves in the Knesset – after more than a decade of accusing the justices of being too interventionist in Knesset business.

However, the High Court has tended not to intervene unless it thinks that an explicit law is being violated.

Similarly, many current members of the coalition have in the past accused the Likud, when in power, of trampling on opposition rights.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the ruling by saying that the High Court had no authority to deal with the matter and that the party was not counting on the court to rule in its favor. Likud faction chairman Yariv Levin said the court was legitimizing undemocratic steps by the coalition.

Knesset Speaker Mickey Levy and Yesh Atid praised the ruling and urged the Likud to have its MKs take their place as voting members in Knesset committees. 

“The court’s decision should end the boycotts,” Levy said.

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.