Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock publicly voiced her concerns Tuesday over the Israeli government’s judicial overhaul efforts, and also cautioned against passing a bill allowing courts to sentence to death terrorists who murdered Israeli citizens.
During a meeting in Berlin with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen, the latter defended the overhaul push and issued his first direct condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine since becoming foreign minister two months ago.
“We abroad are concerned about some Israeli legislative plans,” Baerbock said at a joint press conference. “The values that bind us together include the protection of principles of the rule of law such as judicial independence. This was always a hallmark of Israel.”
The German foreign minister expressed her concerns that Israel was moving away from the liberal democratic model by implementing far-reaching reforms to its justice system, conveying the German government’s views that a strong democracy requires a strong High Court that can provide oversight of the legality of the majority’s decisions.
Cohen responded that the widespread anti-government protests seen in recent weeks are proof that Israel promotes freedom of expression, and said that the legal overhaul would in his view “strengthen Israeli democracy.”
Baerbock signaled “particular concern” over a death sentence bill for terrorists, already given initial approval by a ministerial committee and set for an imminent preliminary reading in the Knesset plenum. Pushed by far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, it is opposed by the attorney general and some former security officials, as well as by some ultra-Orthodox coalition lawmakers.
“We have abolished this penalty,” Baerbock said, adding that Germany was “talking about this with every country that has the death penalty, including the United States,” and that it has proven ineffective as a deterrent.
Baerbock noted that students in German schools are taught that Israel has only carried out the death penalty in one case — that of Adolf Eichmann, who played a major role in the Holocaust, in the early 1960s — despite facing a bigger terror threat than any other country.
“It is always an argument that we have used and I say, as a friend of Israel, that I am convinced that it would be a mistake to enact a death penalty law,” she noted.
(In fact, a second man was executed in Israel — military officer Meir Tobianski — following a 1948 decision by an IDF court-martial to convict him of treason during the War of Independence, though the evidence was circumstantial and he was posthumously cleared of the charges.)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir rebuked Baerbock for her comments.
“The last ones who should be preaching to us are the Germans,” the far-right minister was quoted as saying by the Ynet news website. “They should think 1,000 times before talking about Israel’s right to defend itself.”
During the press conference, Cohen explicitly criticized Moscow’s ongoing war in Ukraine, after avoiding doing so during a recent trip to Kyiv.
“I of course condemn the Russian aggression,” he said. “We are doing our utmost in our unique way. There are 600,000 Jews living in Russia, and it is a central player in our region.”
The judicial overhaul advanced by Justice Minister Yariv Levin would severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down laws and allow the Knesset to re-enact legislation that the court has struck down. It would also give Prime Minister Netanyahu’s coalition government control over judges’ appointments and allow ministers to appoint — and fire — their own legal advisers.
Critics say the plan will deeply undermine Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the coalition and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
Netanyahu has pushed back against the criticism and brushed dire economic predictions aside, saying the proposals will strengthen rather than weaken democracy, and that his government is carrying out the will of the people.
Tuesday was the second time Germany criticized the plan. Last week, Justice Minister Marco Buschmann appeared to express concerns after a two-day visit to Israel that included a meeting with Levin, and two of the people targeted by the changes, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and Supreme Court President Esther Hayut.
It is “clear for me that we must fundamentally protect and strengthen the institutions of our liberal democracies,” Buschmann said in a statement, “because fundamental rights are, by their nature, minority rights and the majority must never have the last word.”
AP contributed to this report.