Israeli lawmakers push ahead contentious bills

November 15, 2011 - 5:30 AM
Mideast Israel Palestinans

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011. (AP Photo/Abir Sultan, Pool)

JERUSALEM (AP) — At the end of a stormy debate, Israeli lawmakers pushed ahead two bills that critics say would threaten the independence of the country's Supreme Court, just days after Cabinet ministers advanced another proposal to sharply limit funding for dovish groups.

Opponents say both developments reflect attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to stifle dissent and pluralism.

Netanyahu himself was absent from the parliament vote on Monday, which dominated newspapers headlines and radio talk shows.

A government spokesman on Tuesday said Netanyahu was absent because of a mourning ritual for his recently deceased father-in-law. Commentators, however, questioned whether he was trying to avoid criticism over the measures, which have caused a furor not only among government opponents but within Netanyahu's coalition as well.

One of the two bills would change the way the top court's judges are selected; the other changes rules for becoming chief justice. Both proposals, which require further votes in parliament to become law, would let officials influence who joins the court next.

Critics of the Supreme Court say it is too activist, too biased and usurps the legislature's power.

"There is no pluralism in the makeup of the Supreme Court," the Maariv newspaper cited Cabinet Minister Uzi Landau as saying during the parliament debate. "It is left wing, political, divorced from Judaism and at times from reality, and allows itself to intrude into places where it has no business." The top court's supporters laud what they regard as its fierce independence.

"We are in the midst of a wave of legislation that must be stopped," said Cabinet Minister Dan Meridor of Likud, a lawyer and former justice minister.

Meridor was among the Likud ministers who also opposed a bill approved by a ministerial committee on Sunday that would slash foreign government funding of dovish groups. The proposal is opposed by Western governments that offer such financing, and after the vote the bill was put on hold.

Some Likud lawmakers are also pushing a bill that would give parliament veto power over Supreme Court nominations.

Maariv commentator Ben Caspit said it wasn't a single bill, but the flood of contentious legislation that was the problem.

"Each bill, though drawing a sign of displeasure from us, could have passed on its own without producing any real uproar," Caspit wrote.

But taken together, the bills "constitute a coordinated, multipronged and lethal attack" by politicians whose sole objective is to win a few more votes from rightists, no matter what the cost to the country, he added.