Report: Reasonableness bill could be used to skew elections

Justice officials to attend cabinet, face down pressure to quash protests – report

In unusual move, all top Justice Ministry officials to attend meeting amid concerns of government pressure on police, legal system to suppress anti-overhaul rallies on its behalf

Israeli border police officers work to disperse demonstrators against the judicial overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Israeli border police officers work to disperse demonstrators against the judicial overhaul at Ben Gurion Airport, July 3, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

The entire top echelon of the Justice Ministry will reportedly attend Sunday’s cabinet discussions on law enforcement at protests, as senior coalition figures increasingly urge police and the legal system to deal more forcefully with demonstrators against the judicial overhaul.

According to a Channel 13 news report on Friday, the expected attendance of the top legal officials at the meeting was due to concerns that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government will pressure the law enforcement system to suppress the protests on its behalf.

The Justice Ministry officials set to be in attendance will reportedly include Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, State Prosecutor Amit Aisman and three deputy attorney generals.

The report said that it was expected that Baharav-Miara will be targeted in the cabinet meeting.

According to the report, senior police officials are also concerned, believing that an increased use of force against the protesters will fan the flames rather than reduce the intensity of the protests.

On Thursday, Baharav-Miara warned Netanyahu against any political interference in the police’s response to mass demonstrations over his hardline government’s efforts to overhaul the judiciary.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara speaks during a conference at Haifa University, December 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

In a letter to Netanyahu, Baharav-Miara said she received a document from cabinet secretary Yossi Fuchs indicating that at Sunday’s cabinet meeting, ministers intend “to deal with the manner in which police force is used at specific protest events against [the government’s] policies, along with the decisions of law enforcement authorities regarding criminal proceedings against participants in protest events.”

The scheduled deliberations follow a meeting between Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin and National Security Itamar Ben Gvir on the matter last week, during which they berated Baharav-Miara and other top law enforcement officials for their handling of the ongoing protests.

Baharav-Miara wrote Thursday that “the law enforcement system is obligated to professionally and independently exercise the authorities with which it is endowed by law. This independence is a central guarantee for the safeguarding of human rights.”

“It is precisely at a time of protest against the government’s policy and its ministers that the government must be extremely careful to avoid actions that could be interpreted as an attempt to illegitimately influence the professional judgment of law enforcement officials,” she added.

Police break up a protest by Israelis against the government’s overhaul plan outside Intelligence Minister Gila Gamliel’s home in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2023. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Baharav-Miara said that holding such a meeting “at the current time, amid protests against the policies of the government and its ministers, is very problematic.” She also noted that some of the participants have “a personal interest” in the police response to the protests.

Citing these considerations, the attorney general said she and other law enforcement officials could speak in general terms at the meeting, but stressed that it was “neither possible or proper” for them to address “concrete cases.” Baharav-Miara concluded her letter by saying law enforcement was giving a “high priority” to dealing with the protests.

Baharav-Miara’s warning drew a fiery response from Levin and Ben Gvir, with the former accusing her of “ignoring the ongoing and unprecedented violation of the basic rights of millions of citizens to get safely to work, to the hospital, to freely access the airport, etc.”

Mounted Israeli police officers try to disperse anti-government protesters on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv on July 5, 2023. (Oren Ziv/AFP)

The justice minister also claimed she was ignoring the police’s “dangerous selective enforcement” against different types of protests.

“The right to protest within the boundaries of the law is sacred and not subject to dispute, but massive violations of the law and inciting violence and disobeying the law require a clear and unified enforcement policy,” Levin said in a statement. “We will demand answers about this at the upcoming cabinet meeting.”

Ben Gvir, who heads the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, noted the resignation the previous night of Tel Aviv police chief Amichai Eshed, who said he was being forced out for political reasons and for his refusal to violently crack down on protesters.

“Last night we saw how a deputy commissioner [Eshed] turned into a politician in uniform. Today we see how the attorney general has turned into a politician in uniform,” Ben Gvir tweeted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin (C) and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir (R) during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Protests against the controversial legislation to remake Israel’s judiciary have been ongoing for seven months, and recently ramped up as Netanyahu’s hardline coalition has renewed its efforts to push through some of the laws.

The demonstrations have angered the coalition, with Ben Gvir repeatedly clashing with the police force over its handling of the demonstrators. He has also argued for a tougher approach toward protesters and more arrests.

Ben Gvir’s outrage was often directed at Eshed, amid the latter’s refusal to use greater force against the months-long anti-overhaul demonstrations.

Police’s Tel Aviv District Commander Amichai Eshed holds a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 5, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The cabinet discussions were set to be held with protests ramping up as a controversial bill to curtail judicial oversight was set to come to the plenum for its first of three Knesset floor votes on Monday.

According to Haaretz, judicial officials are concerned that the bill to completely block judicial review or discussion of the “reasonableness” of decisions and appointments made by the cabinet, individual ministers and “other elected officials, as set by law,” could be abused to interfere with elections.

The report said the unnamed senior officials believe that future transitional governments between elections will theoretically be able to make “unreasonable” decisions and work to prevent their replacement, with the legal system powerless to intervene.

Israel has been rocked by mass demonstrations since early January, when the government unveiled its far-reaching plans to neuter the judicial system. Protesters have warned that the proposals will weaken Israel’s democratic character, remove a key element of its checks and balances and leave minorities unprotected. Supporters claim it is a much-needed reform to rein in an overly activist court.

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