Justice Minister Yariv Levin fielded questions from the public Tuesday about his controversial plans to remake Israel’s judiciary, insisting that the drastic changes will keep the Supreme Court independent and capable of defending minorities.
The first stage of the sweeping reforms that are being pushed through the Knesset includes the government granting itself total control over the appointment of judges, including High Court justices; all but eliminating the High Court’s ability to review and strike down legislation; and allowing politicians 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 executive branch and leaving individual rights unprotected and minorities undefended.
Levin was interviewed live by the Kan public broadcaster, which took questions from the public submitted to the minister via social media.
The first question raised was why the reforms were needed, with host Kan economics commentator Shaul Amsterdamski noting that Likud lawmaker Levin had been pushing for the changes for over 20 years.
Levin, a lawyer by training, said he was “amazed” by problems in the judicial system when he first entered the legal profession. He decried “nepotism” within the system, which he claimed prevented a broad spectrum of the public from gaining representation among the judges.
“There are many good judges in Israel,” he said. “In this system, there are definitely highlights, but the system has many problems.”
Levin also claimed that some judges on the court who are deemed conservative are not conservative enough.
“There is a system that is open to specific elements of the public and closed for others,” he said. “Half of the nation feels they aren’t expressed there. I want a judge that will come and say, gentlemen, the High Court has no authority to overturn a law in the existing situation.”
He emphasized he wanted a “diverse” court.
Regarding government control over the committee that appoints judges, Levin dismissed any concerns, saying that in most of the world, judges are selected by politicians.
“Look at what happens in the US. In the US, judges on the Supreme Court are nominated by the president, and confirmed by the Senate,” he said, while noting that some judges are chosen in elections.
He said that at the heart of the relationship between the executive and judicial branches are the principles that judges don’t choose themselves and that this is done by elected representatives, and that once a judge is appointed, they are independent and cannot be removed except by elected representatives, “and that is a correct balance.”
“What’s happening now? When a justice minister’s opinions line up with judges, they cooperate and appoint judges, but when their opinions don’t line up, they [the judges] cast a veto, which is an improper and wrong situation. This is a situation that has led to the fact we have a judicial system without diversity,” Levin said.
Levin stressed he wants to create a situation “which will allow judges to be appointed who could never be appointed [as things stand], not because of their level of professionalism, but because of their world view… in order to create a much more diverse court.”
He said the “independence of judges is critical” and that booting a judge would not happen without other justices being part of the process.
Critics of Levin’s reform say the current system, in which both politicians and representatives of the courts wield a veto in the Judicial Selection Committee, ensures the appointment of consensus candidates, while complete political control will lead to judicial appointments becoming an entirely political — and potentially corrupt — process.
They also warn it is problematic to compare judge selection in Israel to other countries, as Israel has only a single house of parliament, has no constitution, has only national (and not regional) elections and the executive branch largely controls the legislative one — all leading to power being highly centralized and the judiciary being nearly the only check on a ruling government’s power.
Levin also denied that coalitions would be able to fill the courts, saying on average, two judges or three in “unusual situations” could be appointed during the term of a justice minister.
Levin claimed that the first line of defense for minorities is the Knesset, not the courts, and that parliament would not allow bills to pass that would harm such groups.
“We saw an attempt by the coalition to pass a law… regarding dress at the Western Wall. How long did it take for this bill to be taken off the table?” he noted. That bill was indeed quickly scrapped, though apparently largely as a result of the Haredi Shas party failing to coordinate the bill’s submission with Levin’s Likud party.
He said that legislation that harms minorities “has no chance of passing” in the Knesset.
However, he did not explain what protections minorities would be given other than the goodwill of the Knesset, as the changes would make it extraordinarily difficult — and in some cases impossible — for the courts to review legislation even if it directly undermines basic rights protected by Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.
Pushing ahead despite protests
Levin rejected the idea of slowing down the legislative pace due to the mass public protests against the measures, as well as surveys that indicate it is not supported by a majority of citizens. Weekly protests have seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets and engage in some strike actions.
“I see fake surveys and I also see other surveys,” Levin said, while adding that a recent Direct Polls survey showed there is “tremendous support for the reform, that I feel on every street.”
He accused media channels of “propaganda against the reform” and said that the planned changes are being legislated in stages.
“Some we will do before Passover, some in the next [Knesset] session,” he said referring to the coming festival that begins in the first week of April.
Numerous economists and business leaders have warned that Israel’s economy could be seriously damaged by the shakeup, with foreign investors potentially balking at dealing with an economy where the rule of law is in question.
Levin assessed the Israeli economy as strong enough to withstand any issues. He also lashed out at local economic naysayers of the judicial plan as “internal BDS,” a reference to the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Diversify, and Sanctions movement against Israel.
He said the tactics employed by those opposing the plans, among them the Knesset opposition, are more of a concern.
“Not a single one of the investment firms is interested in how we choose judges. It interests them when they hear former prime ministers calling for civil revolt and irresponsible people saying they are pulling out money,” he said.
Levin also denied that the overhaul was tied to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial or “any other process.” Critics say the planned overhaul will subsequently be utilized to enable the government to abort the trial.
Levin has said the current overhaul legislation is only the first part of his plan, while refusing to provide details on potential future steps. Critics fear the next steps will prove so publicly controversial that Levin is avoiding detailing them before the Supreme Court’s powers are curtailed by the current changes.
Summing up his motives, Levin asked rhetorically: “Do you want to live in a democracy in which there are legislative processes and the opposition is heard, or in a country in which there is a handful of people who ignite the country — even a respectable number, tens of thousands — who fire up the streets and so prevent implementation of the democratic decision? This anarchy must not happen.”