Ex-president Rivlin decries ‘takeover’ of judiciary, says still time for compromise

Former minister, Likud member warns against ‘legislating out of revenge,’ urges young people to not despair, as tensions soar over coalition plans to restructure legal system

From left: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Reuven Rivlin during a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)
From left: Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-President Reuven Rivlin during a memorial service marking 23 years since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem, October 21, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool)

Former president Reuven Rivlin denounced the government’s plan to restructure the legal system and urged both sides to stand down as tensions escalated on Thursday.

“This is not a spillover into the judiciary, this is a takeover of the judiciary,” Rivlin said. “There is a need to come to an agreed-upon framework for the judicial system.”

“One cannot legislate out of feelings of revenge or outside motives,” Rivlin said, urging both sides to stand down. “Despite the atmosphere, it’s not too late to adopt an agreed-upon framework.”

Rivlin said he had disagreed with the renowned former chief justice Aharon Barak in the past about judicial policies, but agreed with Barak’s warning in a recent interview about the judicial restructuring plan.

“Barak raised the possibility that we might endanger democracy in Israel. I agree with him,” Rivlin told Yedioth Ahronoth in an interview.

Rivlin, a lawyer by trade, stepped down as president last year when his term ended.

Before becoming president, Rivlin served as a lawmaker and minister with the right-wing Likud party now led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Then-president Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In 2020, he delivered a blistering speech to the Knesset warning of growing schisms in society during the years-long government impasse at the time.

“Israeli tribalism is bursting through the cracks, and fingers are pointed in accusation by one part of society toward the other. Stop! Please stop! This is not the way,” he said. “It seems like we have lost the [moral] compass we have had since the state was founded, the fundamental principles and values that we are committed to uphold.”

In his interview this week, he said that his warnings at the time had come to pass.

“That speech was to direct the public’s attention to a situation that could occur, and unfortunately it has occurred,” he said. “The tribes will not think that they are a part of the state, but that they can control the state, that the state is a means to serve themselves. People need to sober up.”

“The situation in the country today is, ‘If you don’t agree with me — then whatever you say is treason.’ That means there is no dialogue, and the youth is despairing. I’m saying — don’t despair,” said Rivlin, who also decried the bloc’s plans for the judiciary last month before the coalition took power.

His comments came as tensions boiled over the government’s plan.

On Wednesday, Justice Minister Yariv Levin published the first pieces of the draft legislation aimed at completely restructuring the legal system, which he announced last week.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin speaks during a constitution committee meeting at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament in Jerusalem, on January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The overhaul will grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.

In an extraordinary speech delivered with indignation and fiery rhetoric, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut denounced the plan on Thursday, saying it would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic identity.

Hayut called the planned changes an “unrestrained attack on the justice system.”

Her address at a Haifa conference of the Israeli Association of Public Law was likely the harshest speech ever delivered by a serving Supreme Court president against a ruling coalition.

Coalition members hit back, with Levin accusing Hayut of siding with Netanyahu’s political rivals and claiming she was encouraging unrest.

Levin, the No. 2 in Netanyahu’s Likud party, charged that Hayut’s speech did not contain any “statesmanship, neutrality or a balanced legal view,” but rather “the remarks of politicians who incite protesters.”

There was no comment from Netanyahu, but many other Likud lawmakers also lashed out against Hayut.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Simcha Rothman, the chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, backed Levin and invited Hayut to the committee to plead her case.

“Levin stood up, with bravery and determination, to the wild attack by Hayut,” said Rothman, a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party. “I call on Hayut to come to the law committee and present her view. I promise that she will receive full respect and all of the time she needs to present her solutions.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Hayut’s speech “only proves” why Levin’s proposed judicial shakeup was needed.

“The arrogance, demagoguery, entrenched positions, intolerance, shallowness of arguments and rejection of any shred of criticism, as we heard just now in the speech, brought the public trust in the judicial system to a nadir,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter. “The time has come for a restart.”

Amid the fiery criticism, Lapid and other heads of opposition parties voiced support for Hayut and issued fresh denunciations of Levin’s plans.

“I sign onto every word in the remarks of the Supreme Court president,” Lapid said. “We still stand together with her in the struggle for the country’s soul and against the effort to dismantle Israeli democracy.”

Mass anti-government rallies this weekend may further stoke tensions. Police on Thursday warned against potential unrest, prompting allegations of politicization by protest groups, as government leaders from both sides of the aisle sparred over the planned demonstrations.

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