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‘They want to turn us into Hungary’: Israeli bar chief slams plan to limit top court

Avi Himi says public should ‘take to the streets’ over proposals to let Knesset overturn High Court rulings, change how judges appointed

Israel Bar Association head Avi Himi speaks during a conference in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israel Bar Association head Avi Himi speaks during a conference in Tel Aviv, June 29, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The head of the Israel Bar Association warned Monday against legal reforms being pushed by members of the expected new religious-right coalition that would sharply curb the authority of the courts and allow politicians to determine judicial appointments.

Avi Himi called for a broad public effort to oppose the proposals, which include legislation that would allow the Knesset to overturn rulings by the High Court of Justice and change the criteria by which the chief justice is chosen.

“They now want to turn us into Hungary, with all that implies,” Himi told the Haaretz daily, referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s authoritarian government.

Himi said the reforms would ultimately “harm the average citizen in Afula, Yeruham, Kiryat Shmona and everywhere,” naming several cities where presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and allied factions picked up the majority of votes.

“The significance is that there will be a government without restraints or oversight, and which can do whatever it pleases,” he said.

The bar association chief rejected claims that the so-called override clause — which would let a majority of lawmakers reverse court decisions — is needed to ensure the ruling coalition can effectively govern, calling them “an urban legend without any logical basis.

“Our judicial method anchors universal values that are the infrastructure for our shared lives. If there is no equality, morality or justice, and there is legislation that harms one minority or another — that’s not democracy,” he said.

“The apparent new government does not have the right to change the method of governance in Israel, which is what they want and are going to do,” he added.

A High Court of Justice hearing on a petition demanding that the maritime border deal with Lebanon be brought for a Knesset vote, at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, October 20, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Asked about the prospect of Netanyahu trying to terminate his ongoing trial on graft charges, Himi argued such a move would be “inconceivable.” Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing in his corruption cases, has insisted he will not seek to interfere in the trial.

Himi called for hundreds of thousands to protest against the proposed reforms. He also said he did not expect any Supreme Court judges to agree to change the current method in which the Supreme Court president is selected according to seniority. Some of Netanyahu’s allies have called to change this method in order to influence the identity of the next court chief.

“The citizens need to take to the streets,” Himi said.

Separately Monday, Channel 12 news said some of Netanyahu’s political partners have given Likud No. 2 Yariv Levin, who has been named in reports as the likely incoming justice minister, blanket authorization to put forward legal changes as he sees fit.

The unsourced report said two parties had told Likud: “Take a blank page. Yariv Levin can write on it what he wants and we’ll support it.”

The network did not specify which of Likud’s allies — a pair of ultra-Orthodox parties and three far-right factions — relayed this message.

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and faction chair Yariv Levin (R) lead their party’s faction meeting at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut vowed the judiciary will “stand strong” in the face of the prospective government’s overhaul plans and asserted the crucial importance of an independent judiciary, without addressing any specific proposal.

The proposed judicial changes — particularly the override clause — have also been denounced by Netanyahu’s political rivals, a group of law professors, and prominent American lawyer Alan Dershowitz.

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