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PM again refuses to say he’ll abide by court ruling striking down reasonableness law

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again refused to pledge that the government would abide by a potential future High Court decision to strike down the reasonableness law passed by the Knesset last week, which curtailed judicial oversight over the decisions of elected officials.

When asked by NBC News in an interview that aired Monday if he would abide by such a potential ruling, the prime minister did not answer directly.

“I think 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 [such as the law passed last week], which are the closest thing we have to a constitution,” Netanyahu said. “I think we should keep both principles, and I hope we do.”

Pressed by the interviewer to clarify that he would commit to following such a ruling, the premier again skirted the question.

“Remember what I said: I hope that they don’t strike it down, because I think we should abide by both rules,” Netanyahu said.

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“It’s a peculiar thing. It would be in American terms as though the Supreme Court, that is charged with keeping the Constitution, would nullify a constitutional amendment as unconstitutional. It sort of turns on itself, and it doesn’t make sense. I hope it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Unlike in the United States, Israel has no constitution nor a legislature that is independent of the executive branch of government, so the Supreme Court is virtually the only check on the executive. Moreover, amendments to the US Constitution must be passed by a 2/3 vote of both the House and the Senate, while Israel’s recent legislation passed with 64 votes out of 120 seats in the Knesset.

WATCH: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu tells @rafsanchez "there won't be civil war" after passing the first part of his controversial judicial overhaul.

Netanyahu: "When the dust settles, people will see that Israel's democracy has been strengthened and not weakened." pic.twitter.com/ubgBVpeA6U

— Meet the Press (@MeetThePress) July 31, 2023

In the NBC interview, Netanyahu also said that despite the mass protests and societal upheaval caused by his hardline government’s contentious legislative package to dramatically weaken the judiciary, he did not believe the country would descend into civil war.

“There won’t be civil war — I guarantee you that,” Netanyahu said. “But I think that correcting the imbalances of Israel’s democracy — where the judiciary basically allocated to itself nearly all the powers of the executive branch and the legislature — I think, yes, it is important to do it.”

“I think when the dust settles, people will see that Israel’s democracy will be strengthened and not weakened,” he added. “And I think people’s fears that have been stoked and whipped up will subside, and they’ll see that Israel is just as democratic as it was before and even more democratic.”

National Unity leader Benny Gantz, President Isaac Herzog and multiple security officials have warned that the country could descend into civil war over the legislation. A survey last week by Channel 13 found that 56% of Israelis were worried about civil war.

Riot police try to clear demonstrators with a water canon during a protest after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passes the first law to overhaul the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, July 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The premier is in the midst of an ongoing blitz of international media interviews, while he has continued to avoid sitting down with mainstream Israeli news outlets.

Last week, Netanyahu similarly refused to be drawn on whether he would abide by a potential court ruling against the legislation during an interview with CNN, saying it would be “uncharted territory.”

A day later, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a clarification in which it said “the governments of Israel always respect court rulings.”

But the statement still did not clearly commit to doing so in this case. It qualified its apparent assurance by noting that, at the same time, “the court has always viewed itself as obligated by Basic Laws, to which it confers the status of a constitution.”

“Like the majority of Israelis, the prime minister believes both principles must be maintained,” the statement said.

President of the Supreme Court Esther Hayut and Supreme Court justices at the High Court in Jerusalem hear petitions against the so-called ‘Tiberias law,’ on July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s highly contentious legislation, passed last week, which prevents judicial oversight of government and ministerial decisions on the grounds of reasonableness, was an amendment to Israel’s Basic Law: The Judiciary.

The Supreme Court has never struck down changes to a Basic Law, though no other Basic Law legislation has ever caused such uproar and division within the public.

Critics of the bill have said passing such a critical piece of legislation with only a bare majority, and at a swift pace that did not allow much time for deliberations or review, could and should lead the court to consider taking action in this case.

The High Court of Justice will hear the eight petitions it has accepted against the law on September 12, convening for the first time a 15-judge panel for the hearings.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut said Monday she had decided that every justice on the court would preside over the hugely significant and potentially explosive hearing on the law.