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Lapid says judicial overhaul plans will destroy Israel’s ‘constitutional structure’

Opposition vows to fight government’s legislative proposals, which would drastically curb the authority of judges; Netanyahu allies hail moves as ‘fixing’ judicial system

A composite image of then incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid during their respective Likud and Yesh Atid faction meetings at the Knesset, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A composite image of then incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and then outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid during their respective Likud and Yesh Atid faction meetings at the Knesset, on November 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid warned Wednesday of the destruction of Israel’s government structure after new Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented a proposed overhaul of the country’s judicial system.

Coalition lawmakers, by contrast, praised Levin’s announcement, arguing the reforms were necessary to restore the public’s trust in the courts and create a more balanced relationship between the three branches of governance.

The changes set out by Levin at a press conference in the Knesset would severely limit the authority of the High Court of Justice, give the government control over the judicial selection committee, and significantly limit the authority of government legal advisers. Levin is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Critics warn the planned moves will remove the judiciary’s role as a check on the power of the ruling majority. Proponents argue that court rulings overturning legislation or government decisions subvert the will of Israeli voters.

“What Yariv Levin presented today is not a legal reform, it is a threat. They threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel,” Lapid said.

“I’m announcing now — on the day we return to power, all these changes will be canceled,” he said. “Judges won’t be chosen by corrupt politicians who want them to close their cases. We will fight against all this insanity with all our strength.”

“But even if it passes, that’s not the end of the line. We will continue to fight, we will return, we will cancel everything,” Lapid said.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin holds a press conference at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Levin announced the proposals a day before the High Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on petitions demanding that the appointment of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as interior and health minister be annulled due to his recent conviction for tax fraud. The Thursday morning hearing will now occur under the shadow of declared coalition plans to hobble the court’s power to overrule the government.

“Like a gang of criminals, the day before the High Court hearing on the Deri Law, the government put a loaded gun on the table,” Lapid charged.

Other opposition lawmakers lashed Netanyahu and the government for the proposals.

National Unity party MK Gideon Sa’ar, who until last week occupied Levin’s seat as Justice Minister, said Levin’s plan to curb the judiciary’s authority betrays the ideals of Likud founder Menachem Begin, who Levin name-checked at the start of his speech.

“There is no doubt that Menachem Begin would have rejected each of the sections of the plan to change the regime in Israel,” Sa’ar said.

National Unity’s Gideon Sa’ar attends the Maariv conference in Tel Aviv, October 24, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Sa’ar, a former senior Likud member who broke with Netanyahu in 2019, wrote that Begin’s “true disciples have the duty to fight it. And so I will.”

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli accused the coalition of behaving like a “mafia” and added: “Right-wing voters, this is not what you voted for, not for them taking away the protection that the Supreme Court gives you.”

“Bibi, you don’t have the legitimacy to dismantle the Israeli government,” said Benny Gantz, head of the National Unity party, referring to Netanyahu by his nickname.

“This isn’t a reform – it’s a political coup,” Gantz said earlier Wednesday.

Party leaders in Netanyahu’s right-religious bloc hailed Levin’s proposals, with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich “blessing” the “restart of the judicial system.”

Smotrich, the leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party, presented a similar plan during his election campaign.

“You all know that this is what [Israeli voters] declared. We have a full mandate to increase the Israeli public’s faith in the judicial system, to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Smotrich said.

Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The nation chose to fix the judicial system and our 64 mandates chose to carry it out,” said Otzma Yehudit party leader Itamar Ben Gvir. “I congratulate my friend Justice Minister Yariv Levin who is advancing the reform that will end the politicization of the judicial system.”

“It’s an important step for democracy and the rule of the people,” the far-right lawmaker said.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni congratulated Levin for his planned reforms, accusing the High Court of ruling against certain sectors in recent years, “specifically against the Haredi community.”

Shas leader Deri has not commented on Levin’s proposal since it was announced. He said during the campaign that he would support a bill to overrule High Court decisions and would ensure the passage of legislation permitting him to become a minister, despite his criminal convictions, if justices were to rule against it.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara informed the High Court on Wednesday that she strongly opposes Deri’s appointment as a government minister, saying his past criminal convictions, including one less than 12 months ago, should bar him from office.

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, argued earlier Wednesday that the judicial overhaul plan would “create balance” between Israel’s courts, the cabinet and the Knesset.

“We will revise the way we govern. We’ll take steps that strengthen personal security throughout the state. We’ll start by enacting reforms that will ensure the proper balance between the three branches of government,” Netanyahu said.

Jeremy Sharon and Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.

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