'At this time, silence is despicable'

Ex-AG Mazuz says plans for judicial shake-up ‘most serious threat ever’ to democracy

Former Supreme Court justice warns Israel is facing ‘constitutional revolution’; ex-state attorney Lador says Netanyahu should be required to step down for conflict of interests

Supreme Court Justice Meni Mazuz at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Supreme Court Justice Meni Mazuz at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on March 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Former Supreme Court justice and attorney general Menachem “Meni” Mazuz said on Sunday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government’s plans to radically overhaul the judiciary and restrict the independent powers of the High Court of Justice were the “most serious threat ever to Israeli democracy.”

Speaking on Sunday at an event in Tel Aviv hosted by Haaretz, Mazuz said the ongoing public protests against the coalition’s efforts to weaken the judiciary were necessary.

“At this time, silence is despicable,” said Mazuz, borrowing the phrase from a 1932 poem titled “Shir Betar” (the Song of Betar) by revisionist Zionist visionary Zeev Jabotinsky.

Mazuz — best remembered for indicting prime minister Ehud Olmert on graft charges when he was attorney general between 2004-2010, and for previously closing the “Greek island” case against prime minister Ariel Sharon for lack of evidence — said Sunday that “each and every one of us will have to explain to our children and grandchildren — what did [we] do to prevent harm to democracy?”

Mazuz blasted the coalition’s judicial overhaul plans as “a series of moves directed against the justice system, but their real goal is to crush Israeli democracy, to damage the balances and brakes on which democracy is based, and as a result to harm human rights.”

Earlier this month, Mazuz signed onto a letter by almost all the attorneys general and state attorneys since 1975 decrying the government’s plans, and warning that they “threaten to destroy the justice system.” Signatories included former attorneys general Avichai Mandelblit and Yehuda Weinstein; retired Supreme Court chiefs Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch; and retired Supreme Court justices Yitzhak Zamir, Elyakim Rubinstein, Edna Arbel and Michael Ben-Yair.

Mazuz on Sunday said the public discourse in Israel “must not fall into [a] trap and adopt the terminology of ‘reform’,” as the government headed by Netanyahu presents the judicial shake-up. The prime minister has argued that the overhaul will strengthen Israel’s democracy.

“The public is not stupid and does not buy the spin,” said Mazuz. “The public understands that there is a constitutional revolution here that will have consequences in all areas of life. We see how group after group in Israeli society joins and expresses opposition to the government’s moves,” he added in reference to mounting opposition to the overhaul by jurists, leading economists, businesses, academics, the vaunted Israeli tech sector and others.

Israelis protest against the proposed changes to the legal system, in Tel Aviv, on January 28, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The retired judge said the judicial system was “the only and last barrier to the rapacity of the [governing] leadership. The judicial system is the basis of a functioning democracy, as opposed to a democracy in appearance [only].”

“No government or Knesset has a mandate to harm the Jewish and democratic nature of the country,” said Mazuz.

The Netanyahu coalition’s proposals, as presented by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, would severely restrict the High Court’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, with an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate struck-down laws with a bare majority of 61; give the government complete control over the selection of judges; prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” to judge legislation and government decisions; and allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers, instead of getting counsel from advisers operating under the aegis of the Justice Ministry.

Mazuz, a fierce critic of Netanyahu, accused the prime minister in late 2021 of leading year-long efforts to suppress Israel’s judicial system amid his ongoing criminal trial by attacking “the police, the [state] prosecution, the attorney general, the courts.”

Critics have long accused Netanyahu and allied lawmakers of seeking to overhaul the court system in order for the prime minister to wriggle out of criminal charges leveled against him.

Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference in Jerusalem, on January 25, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Speaking at the same conference on Sunday, former state attorney Moshe Lador also called for public protests against the proposed judicial overhaul.

“If we don’t act, it will be too late,” he said, adding that the current government was moving forward “little by little, in a cluster of changes and reforms” but “the more significant the opposition and protest, the more they will speed up the legislation.”

“It takes a long time to pass normal legislative procedures in the Knesset, sometimes many years. And here is a constitutional change, done in the blink of an eye,” said Lador of the government’s efforts to speed the overhaul legislation through parliament in the next few weeks.

Last month, Lador, who oversaw the prosecution of Olmert, said plans to overhaul the judiciary were being advanced “in a heavy-handed and forceful manner that I believe will change the face of the nation.” He said Netanyahu was aware that he was in serious legal jeopardy from his ongoing trial on corruption charges and was working to defang the judiciary in order to save himself from prison.

Moshe Lador at the Knesset in February. (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon / Flash90)
Moshe Lador at the Knesset in February 2012. (Kobi Gideon / Flash90)

“Not stopping Netanyahu and not requiring him to recuse himself [under the terms of the conflict of interest agreement by which Netanyahu was allowed to continue to serve as prime minister while on trial, provided he had nothing to do with any policymaking that could impact his trial], is a very serious mistake, and it is leading us to the destruction of democracy, and to a dictatorship,” Lador said on Sunday. “My opinion is that this reality should not have been allowed, for the prime minister to be like this,” said Lador, in reference to Netanyahu serving as prime minister while a defendant in court, accused of corruption offenses that he allegedly committed during his previous terms of office.

Former deputy attorney-general Dana Zilber also spoke at the conference on Sunday, warning that the situation was not a case of “‘crying wolf,’ this is a ‘red alert'” — a reference to the Hebrew name for the sirens that warn of incoming rocket fire.

“This is an opportunity and an invitation to the Israeli public, in the 75th year of the state, for civil resistance,” she said.

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