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Today, democracies risk being 'chewed up from the inside'

Lapid, jabbing Netanyahu: Distinguish between judicial reform, poisoning democracy

PM tells Israel Bar Association conference he supports changes that will improve institutions, but not as a pretext to ‘dismantle and destroy’ the system

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Israel Bar Association's Legal Conference in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2022. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Israel Bar Association's Legal Conference in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2022. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Monday said Israel’s judicial system is in need of changes, but criticized right-wing political rivals for using reform as a pretext to “dismantle and destroy” the legal system for personal benefit.

“The legal world is under attack, the goal of which is to dismantle and destroy it,” Lapid said at the opening of the Israel Bar Association’s Legal Conference in Tel Aviv.

Pledging to defend the justice system, Lapid said he was “not blind to its flaws, but first we will make sure it is safe from those who wish it ill.” He added that any changes “should serve the country, not those who try to destroy [the justice system] for personal reasons.”

Lapid’s comments were aimed at political rivals in the opposition, chief among them Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu is currently on trial for three separate corruption charges. Maintaining his innocence, Netanyahu claims the charges against him are the fabrication of a biased police and prosecution, egged on by a leftist media and enabled by a weak former attorney general. He has provided no evidence for such claims.

Judicial reform is an election issue for Israelis going to the polls in less than two months, and it is potentially country-shaping in terms of how laws are interpreted, upheld and enforced, as well as affecting public trust in the justice system.

The prime minister, fighting to convert his caretaker premiership into a permanent one, said that the fight over the judicial system is part and parcel of preventing democratic erosion.

Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, August 29, 2022. (Screenshot: Telegram)

“In the past, governments fell when tanks stormed three places: the parliament, the television station, and the courthouse. In the world we live in today, democracies do not fall, they are poisoned. They are chewed up from the inside,” the prime minister said.

Lapid said that he hopes to increase oversight of the State Attorney’s Office, separate the role of the government legal adviser from the attorney general, reduce the Supreme Court’s ability to intervene in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, create a balanced mechanism for the Knesset to set aside a Supreme Court decision that a law is unconstitutional, and raise minimum sentences for some crimes.

On limiting the Supreme Court’s power, Lapid said he supports raising the number of justices required to invalidate a law from the current simple majority of justices sitting on a panel. He also said the court “should not intervene in Basic Laws, except in an expanded and special composition and only on condition that there is a contradiction between [those laws] and other Basic Laws.”

Furthermore, Lapid said that he would support a superseding clause that would enable the Knesset to reinstate invalidated laws with a majority of 70 of 120 MKs — provided that 10 of those 70 came from the opposition.

Likud’s judicial reform policymaker Yariv Levin has previously supported a version of such a clause with a simple 61-MK majority. This would enable a functional coalition to reinstate any legislation that had been shot down. Former justice minister and Zionist Spirit head Ayelet Shaked — campaigning to be a keystone in a broad unity government — said at the same event on Monday that she supports a 61-MK majority as well.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid speaks at the Israel Bar Association’s Legal Conference in Tel Aviv, September 5, 2022. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Separating the attorney general role and increasing the number of judges needed to disqualify legislation have been proposed in the past by Likud members. Lapid, however, did not commit to reaching into the opposition for compromise. He charged rather that current reforms proposed by political rivals were only meant to protect Netanyahu from the courts.

“We will do it, but only after we know that it does not become a tool to save influential defendants from their trial,” said the prime minister.

“I don’t have a problem with criticizing the system,” Lapid said. “I have no problem with the claim that the system needs reform. I share a lot of the arguments against judicial activism, but make no mistake—that’s not what’s happening now.

“What is happening now is that people who want to harm the court for personal reasons are abusing the need to fix the system. They are making dangerous use of all the reforms we need to make,” the prime minister added.

Lapid said that Netanyahu’s narrative that the charges against him are a conspiracy are part of an “orchestrated campaign” to “brainwash an entire country.”

“The first time we heard the conspiracy theory, we laughed. Because it was a ridiculous idea: That a religious attorney general from the right, a religious commissioner from the right, a state attorney from the right — all of whom Netanyahu personally appointed — recruited hundreds of police officers and prosecutors, all of whom were partners in a secret plot to overthrow the same Netanyahu,” he said.

“And the second time we also laughed. But the third time less so. And by the 300th time we realized that there were too many people listening to it, and by the 3,000th time they believed it,” the prime minister charged.

Likud responded by calling Lapid’s characterization a “false narrative” and said the party’s future plans for judicial reform will be carried out with “responsibility.”

“We condemn Lapid’s false narrative that has nothing to do with reality. There is no room for the hysteria Lapid is trying to create,” the Likud statement read.

“Every citizen understands that the law enforcement system needs reform, and it will only be done with the utmost discretion and responsibility,” the party message concluded.

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