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Israel unveils controversial plans to overhaul judicial system

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Critics warn changes will weaken supreme court and undermine country’s democracy

Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister has unveiled the new government’s long-promised overhaul of the judicial system that aims to weaken the supreme court. Critics say the plan will undermine Israel’s democracy by giving absolute power to the most rightwing coalition in the country’s history.

The justice minister, Yariv Levin, a confidant of Netanyahu’s and a longtime critic of the supreme court, presented his plan a day before the justices debate a new law passed by the government allowing a politician convicted of tax offences to serve as a cabinet minister. “The time has come to act,” Levin said.

He proposed a series of changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, including allowing lawmakers to pass laws that the high court has struck down and in effect deemed unconstitutional.

Levin laid out a law that would empower the country’s 120-seat Knesset to override supreme court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes. Levin also proposed that politicians play a greater role in the appointment of supreme court judges and that ministers appoint their own legal advisers instead of using independent professionals.

Levin argued that the public’s faith in the judicial system had plummeted to a historic low, and he said he planned to restore power to elected officials that now lay in the hands of overly interventionist judges.

“We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us,” he said. “That’s not democracy.”

The planned overhaul has already drawn fierce criticism from Israel’s attorney general and the Israeli opposition, though it is unclear whether they will be able to prevent the far-right government from racing forward.

Yair Lapid, the former prime minister and head of the opposition, said he would fight the changes “in every possible way” and vowed to cancel them if he returns to power. “Those who carry out a unilateral coup in Israel need to know that we are not obligated to it in any way whatsoever,” he said.

If Levin’s proposed “override” law is passed, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist allies have said they hope to scrap supreme court rulings outlawing Israeli outposts on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. They would also seek to allow for the protracted detention of African asylum seekers and make official the exclusion of ultra-Orthodox people from mandatory military service.

In Israel, supreme court judges are appointed and dismissed by a committee made up of professionals, lawmakers and some justices. Levin wants to give lawmakers a majority in the committee, with most coming from the rightwing and religiously conservative ruling coalition.

“It will be a hollow democracy,” said Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at Jerusalem’s Israel Democracy Institute, a thinktank. “When the government has ultimate power, it will use this power not only for issues of LGBTQ rights and asylum seekers but elections and free speech and anything it wants.”

Recent opinion polls by the Israel Democracy Institute found a majority of respondents believe the supreme court should have the power to strike down laws that conflict with Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a sort of constitution.

In a speech on Wednesday before Levin’s announcement, Netanyahu appeared to back his justice minister by vowing to “implement reforms that will ensure the proper balance between the three branches of government”.

Since being indicted on corruption charges, Netanyahu has campaigned against the justice system. He denies all charges, saying he is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by a hostile media, police and prosecutors. Levin said his plan was “not connected in any way” to Netanyahu’s trial.

Hours before Levin’s speech, the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, a prime target of the new government, declared her opposition to the ministerial appointment of one of Netanyahu’s key coalition partners who has been convicted of tax offences. On Thursday, the supreme court is expected to hear petitions against Aryeh Deri serving as minister.

Associated Press in Jerusalem


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Article source: The Guardian

2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000

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