Dershowitz: Judicial overhaul will make Israel much harder to defend on global stage

Celebrity lawyer and staunch Israel supporter warns reforms are a threat to civil liberties and minorities, says he’d join street protests against planned changes

Attorney Alan Dershowitz leaves federal court, in New York, December 2, 2019. (Richard Drew/AP)
Attorney Alan Dershowitz leaves federal court, in New York, December 2, 2019. (Richard Drew/AP)

Prominent US lawyer Alan Dershowitz, long a staunch defender of Israel’s policies on the international stage, said Sunday he cannot defend sweeping judicial reforms planned by Israel’s new government.

The proposals call for an overhaul aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, including by allowing lawmakers to easily re-legislate laws that the Supreme Court has struck down and by drastically limiting the justices’ capacity to strike down laws in the first place. The reforms would also give politicians more power over how judges are chosen and limit the independence of government legal advisers, among other steps.

The legal reforms were essential to solidifying the current coalition government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and made up of conservative ultranationalist and ultra-Orthodox parties who seek to advance their agenda through less judicial oversight.

Dershowitz said the reforms pose a threat to civil liberties and minority rights in Israel.

“If I were in Israel I would be joining the protests,” Dershowitz told Army Radio, referring to a protest in Tel Aviv on Saturday against the reforms that drew thousands.

“It will make it much more difficult for people like me who try to defend Israel in the international court of public opinion to defend them effectively,” he said. “It would be a tragedy to see the Supreme Court weakened.”

However, Dershowitz stressed there is “major confusion” between democracy and civil liberties and that “Israel’s democracy is not in danger; indeed the reforms are designed to improve democracy, majority rule.”

“What is in danger are civil liberties, minority rights,” he said. There is “a direct conflict between pure democracy, where the Knesset rules… and the right of minorities and civil rights which the Supreme Court is designed to protect,” he explained.

Israelis attend a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Dershowitz rejected likening Israel to authoritarian regimes and predicted the Jewish state will always be a democratic country in which the majority rules, but raised concerns of “a danger that it will become less sensitive to civil liberties and minority rights.”

It was unusual to hear Dershowitz, who has written bestselling books supporting Israeli policies and is close to Netanyahu, so forcefully opposing the proposed reforms. Dershowitz said he had informed Netanyahu recently of his “very strong, negative views” of the reforms, saying they would also expose Israel to legal challenges by global bodies such as the International Criminal Court.

The reforms could also help Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, evade a conviction or see his trial disappear entirely. Dershowitz said he believed Netanyahu agreed to the reforms not to save himself from a conviction but rather to appease the partners of his new governing coalition.

Critics accuse the government of declaring war against the legal system, saying the plan will upend Israel’s system of checks and balances and undermine its democratic institutions by giving absolute power to the most right-wing coalition in the country’s history.

The government says the plan strikes the right balance between the executive and judicial branches while streamlining governance and legislation.

Dershowitz said the proposed reform “does not strike an appropriate balance — it gives far too much power to the majority” and that he wishes Netanyahu would “not allow his right wing to dictate what the balance should be.”

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