Likud’s Barkat: If High Court strikes down key overhaul law, I’ll respect its ruling

After justice minister vows ‘we won’t accept’ justices barring judicial appointments law, economy minister backs bill but says court must be heeded to avoid chaos; Likud bashes him

Economy Minister Nir Barkat speaks during a conference in Haifa, March 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)
Economy Minister Nir Barkat speaks during a conference in Haifa, March 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Economy Minister Nir Barkat said Tuesday that he would respect the High Court of Justice’s decision if it overturns a key piece of legislation that is part of the government’s drastic overhaul of the judiciary, breaking lockstep with Justice Minister Yariv Levin who vowed the coalition will not accept such a development.

Speaking at a conference in Haifa, Barkat said he would accept a potential High Court ruling against a bill that aims to give the government control of the panel that selects judges, explaining that he would do so to avoid a “constitutional crisis.”

Barkat’s remarks came a day after Levin, who is spearheading the judicial overhaul, said that if the High Court overturns the bill to remake the Judicial Selection Committee it would “mark the crossing of every red line. We certainly won’t accept it.”

Barkat’s Likud party, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also includes Levin, swiftly issued a response to Barkat decrying the “absurd discussion” on a potential constitutional crisis and reiterating its position that the High Court has no place intervening in the proposed legislation, which involves changing quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

It was the latest indication that some Likud lawmakers are uncomfortable with the government’s determined rush to enact legislation, part of a plan that will politicize appointments to the judiciary and radically constrain the court’s ability to act as a check against the government’s power. There have been mass protests against the overhaul, which critics warn will destroy Israel’s democratic character.

The overhaul has also faced massive pushback from the business and financial world.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Justice Minister Yariv Levin during a debate and a vote in the Knesset plenum, March 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

At Tuesday’s conference, the economy minister stressed that he fully supports the judicial overhaul, but that he does not back “blindly walking into a constitutional crisis in Israel.”

As he spoke, Barkat was heckled by anti-overhaul protesters in the audience.

“The amendments to the judicial system, chief among them the diversity of judges and giving representation to the tapestry that makes up Israeli society, are a necessity,” he said.

“I fully support the necessary amendments to the judicial system and there is no room for the High Court’s intervention or the Knesset’s disqualification of legislation on this issue.”

But, he added, “in the event that the High Court of Justice regrettably rejects the amendments as part of the reform — I will respect the court’s decision as issued.

“I will not lend my voice and support to chaos in which the citizens of Israel will lose confidence in the government and justice systems simultaneously,” Barkat said.

Referring to calls for molding an alternative overhaul plan that opposition parties can also agree to, Barkat said he believes an eventual solution will be found through a “broad consensus.”

In a statement, the Likud party responded that “the principle that the High Court has no authority to invalidate Basic Laws appears throughout all the [overhaul] outline [plans], including the president’s framework, and will be anchored in the legislative reform. Therefore there is no place for a constitutional crisis.”

During Wednesday night, March 15, dozens of protesters painted the road leading from Jerusalem’s Russian Compound to the Supreme Court, in a move meant to represent the inseparable connection between an independent judicial system and freedom of expression (Courtesy Amir Goldstein)

The statement referred to the framework for an alternative proposal presented by President Isaac Herzog last week as he warned that deep public division over the current government plan threatens civil war. The framework was immediately rejected by Netanyahu’s coalition. The president’s plan would indeed preclude the High Court from reviewing Basic Laws, but only after making it far harder for parliament to change them, a principle Likud has not accepted.

Speaking with the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14 Monday, Levin asserted that changes to the legislation — introduced late Sunday night by MK Simcha Rothman and slightly updated on Monday morning — have addressed critics’ concerns that the proposal will lead to a constitutional crisis, and allayed their fears that the coalition’s true aim is to give itself absolute power to determine the makeup of the courts.

But opposition leaders Monday said the bill — which passed its first Knesset reading last month in a slightly different format — marked the beginning of the end of Israeli democracy.

The bill amending the process for selecting judges, which the coalition aims to enact into law next week, would grant the government near-total control over the appointment of judges, even with the changes introduced by Rothman this week. The Likud Knesset faction overwhelmingly backed the legislation at a party meeting Monday.

It is part of a wider package of coalition legislation that would also largely neuter the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation in the future, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a bare majority of just 61 MKs.

Israelis protest against the government’s planned judicial overhaul in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2023. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

On Sunday, Likud MK David Bitan said that there were “at least five” Likud lawmakers who wanted to halt the government’s controversial judicial overhaul to allow a compromise with the opposition to be reached.

The coalition commands 64 votes in the 120-member Knesset, and five votes against the bills would block them assuming all opposition MKs showed up and voted against. Bitan also claimed that lawmakers in the ruling party were in complete agreement on softening and delaying part of the legislation.

Bitan joined other senior Likud figures who have called for a pause or compromise in the legislation. Likud MK Yuli Edelstein urged Saturday evening that the bills be frozen in order to allow discussion with the opposition, and Culture and Sports Minister Miki Zohar also called for some form of compromise.

However, all of those critics on Monday voted at the Likud faction meeting to approve swiftly passing the bill to change judicial selection.

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