Israel’s new government unveils plan to weaken Supreme Court

The new justice minister wants to curb the power of the high court, a move critics say would undermine democracy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in Jerusalem. (Atef Safadi/Pool Photo via AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister has unveiled the new government’s plans to overhaul the Supreme Court [File: Atef Safadi/Pool Photo/AP]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister has unveiled a plan to overhaul the country’s judicial system and weaken the country’s Supreme Court.

Critics have accused the government of declaring war against the judiciary, saying the plan announced on Wednesday will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances and undermine democratic institutions by giving absolute power to the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history.

Justice minister Yariv Levin, a confidant of Netanyahu and longtime critic of the Supreme Court, presented his plan a day before the justices are to debate a controversial new law on Thursday that allows a politician convicted of tax offences to serve as a Cabinet minister.

“The time has come to act,” Levin said of his plan to overhaul the court.

His proposals call for a series of sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of Israel’s high court, including by allowing legislators to pass laws the court has struck down and effectively deemed unconstitutional.

Levin laid out a law that would empower the country’s 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes. He 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.

Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist allies have also 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 the ultra-Orthodox from the country’s mandatory military service.

Levin argued that the public’s faith in the judicial system has plummeted to a historic low and said he plans to restore power to elected officials that now lies in the hands of what he and his supporters consider overly interventionist judges.

“These reforms will strengthen the judicial system and restore public faith in it,” Levin said in a televised statement.

“People we did not vote for decide for us,” he said, referring to the court.

“That’s not democracy.”

In a speech Wednesday ahead of 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 judicial 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 to overhaul the Supreme Court is “not connected in any way” to Netanyahu’s trial.

Fierce criticism

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

Yair Lapid, former prime minister and head of the opposition, said he will fight the changes “in every possible way”.

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.

“It will be a hollow democracy,” Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, said of the proposed changes.

“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,” Fuchs said.

“We are already in a very fragile situation when we talk about human rights and our constitutional foundations because we have almost no checks and balances.”

As part of negotiations to form the current government, Israel’s parliament last month changed a law to allow someone convicted and on probation to serve as a Cabinet minister.

That paved the way for Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve half a term as the minister of health and interior affairs, before becoming finance minister. He will also hold the post of deputy prime minister. Deri was convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended sentence last year.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court is expected to hear petitions against Deri serving as minister.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, a prime target of the new government, has declared her opposition to the ministerial appointment. Baharav-Miara was appointed by the previous government, which vehemently opposes Netanyahu’s rule.

Netanyahu’s allies have floated the idea of splitting up the post of attorney general into three roles including two that would be political appointments.

That would water down the current attorney general’s authority while opening the door for Netanyahu to install someone more favourable to throwing out the charges against him.

Source: The Associated Press