Analysis'There is a lot of anger toward' Justice Minister Levin

As Israel’s constitutional crisis brews, overhaul brings Likud to a boil

Though no one in Netanyahu’s party will vote against the bills, many are uncomfortable with them, and the cracks are beginning to show

Shalom Yerushalmi

Shalom Yerushalmi is the political analyst for Zman Israel, The Times of Israel’s Hebrew current affairs website

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The star of the Likud party’s Monday faction meeting in the Knesset was without a doubt MK Amit Halevi. True to form — he’s one of the most militant lawmakers when it comes to reining in the judiciary — Halevi asked Justice Minister Yariv Levin to initiate a discussion of possible responses to a potential High Court ruling overturning legislation that would hand the coalition the power to appoint justices.

“We should plan our next steps after the High Court shoots down the law,” Halevi said, causing visible discomfort among some Likud members. Senior ministers and MKs including Nir Barkat, Avi Dichter and Danny Danon — who wouldn’t dream of disobeying a court ruling — froze in their seats, a person who was present at the meeting told The Times of Israel. They glanced at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he didn’t say a word.

Though there was no discussion of possible responses to a potential judicial block, Levin — the dominant figure at Monday’s meeting and in the faction in general — asserted in an interview immediately after the meeting that the government would not accept any such decision by the court.

On Tuesday morning, Barkat mustered the courage to assert that, come what may, he would abide by the law and respect any decision by the court. It was a throwback to the even-tempered Likud of old, which championed the independence of the courts.

But later that day, Netanyahu staked out a position that no longer comes as a surprise to anyone. Once again, he sided with Levin, his mentor on all matters constitutional, against Barkat.

“The High Court of Justice has neither the authority nor the cause to intervene in an amendment to a Basic Law determining how judges are appointed, just as it did not intervene more than a decade ago when the law was last amended,” read a statement from Likud, which could not have been issued without the prior approval of party chair Netanyahu.

As Israel’s constitutional crisis brews, Likud too is seething. Though most faction members support the radical judicial overhaul being advanced by Netanyahu and Levin, the plan also has its fair share of opponents, skeptics and ditherers, including Yuli Edelstein, who chose to sit out one of the Knesset’s votes on the overhaul and was penalized by the party for that.

Likud MK Amit Halevi leads a House Committee meeting at the Knesset on March 19, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

By and large, they are wary of the wrath of the electorate, which could punish them for showing outright dissent, and will not revolt openly. Ultimately, when the remaking of the Judicial Selection Committee comes up for its final two votes on the Knesset floor next week, Likud will vote unanimously in favor.

Another Likud member who is not fully on board with his government’s plans is Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. The former IDF chief of staff has been listening as his finest commanders come out against the overhaul and warn — like so many other people in the top of their fields in Israel and abroad — that it poses a threat to democracy. He also met with LGBTQ recruits who told him they fear discrimination in the military and would prefer not to serve should the overhaul pass.

Defense Minister Yoav Galant is seen during a tour near the border with Lebanon, in northern Israel, March 16, 2023. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Gallant approached Netanyahu with those reservations and warnings earlier this week. In the wake of that meeting, Netanyahu’s associates spread the rumor that Gallant had threatened to resign (he hadn’t), a claim the prime minister conveniently relied on to rationalize the decision to scale back slightly the takeover of the Judicial Selection Committee. Despite a public show of unity by Netanyahu and Gallant during a visit Tuesday to the IDF Recruitment Center, the relationship between the two men is hardly copacetic.

Other feuds in Likud bubbled to the surface during Monday’s faction meeting. MKs David Amsalem and David Bitan fumed at Netanyahu because they were not consulted on amendments to the bills. (While Amsalem voted against “softening” the Judicial Selection Committee takeover during the meeting, Bitan voted for it, amid a trend of seeming moderation on his part that some in the faction have linked to the corruption trial against him.)

Levin, too, sustained friendly fire. Though he is held up by powerful allies — among them Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Culture Minister Miki Zohar and Tourism Minister Haim Katz — other senior members of the party consider his shepherding of the overhaul a colossal failure.

“There is a lot of anger toward Levin,” one high-ranking figure in Likud told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. “He formulated the reform on his own, he held the negotiations on his own. What did we get out of it? The entire country is against us, Likud has declined in opinion polls, we’ve united the opposition, the masses are rallying in the streets. The damage is immense, and for what? So we can appoint two new judges? In the past, [former justice minister] Ayelet Shaked succeeded in appointing two right-wing judges without causing a national crisis.”

Other Likudniks are feting the rapid advancement of the overhaul, which is slated to pass before the Knesset breaks for Passover. One of these is Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, who on Seder night will celebrate what he calls “the festival of liberation from the High Court.” A senior Likud member said Karhi’s top priority is a form of collateral damage — the demotion of Justice Isaac Amit. Once the coalition seizes control of the judicial appointment process and does away with the seniority system on the bench, Amit can be prevented from succeeding Esther Hayut as Supreme Court president, to the delight of the Likud activists who universally despise him.

A version of this piece first appeared in Zman Yisrael, The Times of Israel Hebrew-language sister site. 

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