Officials in the justice system and the Israel Police have reportedly warned that politicians gunning for the Justice and Public Security ministry posts would “destroy” the legal system, and spark unrest by letting Jews perform religious rituals on the Temple Mount.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is thought to be considering appointing either Yariv Levin (Likud) or Betzalel Smotrich (Union of Right-Wing Parties) as justice minister, as he cobbled together a new coalition after elections last week.
Senior Justice Ministry officials told Channel 13 news Thursday that if either of the two were given the post, it would be considered “a declaration of war against the Supreme Court.”
Both Levin and Smotrich have expressed support for clamping down on the Supreme Court and limiting its ability to act as a check on the legislature, by curbing its right to strike down Knesset laws.
Smotrich has also explicitly said he will seek to enact legislation to protect Netanyahu from indictment in corruption cases against him.
Levin is a political hawk and an advocate for weakening the powers of the court. On Wednesday, he told the Ynet news site, that “anyone who believes that the legal system needs to continue functioning as it does today, certainly has reason to fear the appointment of a minister such as myself, who wants to do things differently.”
Smotrich, a co-founder of the right-wing NGO Regavim, which targets illegal construction by non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2015 and quickly became known for his uncompromising right-wing views and controversial remarks. Among his legislative efforts was a bill to remove the court’s ability to quash bills deemed unconstitutional.
“These are two people who want to destroy the existing system and have been saying so for several years,” an unnamed source told the channel, according to the report.
“We are facing an extremely tough period,” the source added. “They’re not planning on a dialogue with us but rather to impose their ideology on us. In their eyes, we are the enemy.”
The source surmised that Netanyahu would likely not attempt to back the court system, as he has done in the past, but rather back the reforms.
The Kan public broadcaster quoted unnamed judges as lamenting a situation in which “you have to attack the system” in order to be appointed as justice minister.
People could end up looking back longingly at outgoing minister Ayelet Shaked’s term, one was quoted as saying. Shaked was viewed as a critic of the Supreme Court and took measures to curb its powers, appointing judges who do not have a judicial activist bent.
The prime minister is facing looming indictments in three separate graft cases, including one in which he is accused of bribery.
He has long railed against the police and justice officials, accusing them of a witch-hunt against him.
Following Thursday’s reports, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, a main target of Netanyahu’s and his allies’ ire, said in a statement that “we will welcome every minister and help them execute their and their government’s policy, within the boundaries of the law.”
Mandelblit is expected to formally charge Netanyahu in the coming months, following a hearing. The prime minister is thought to be aiming to use his right-wing coalition to grant himself immunity from prosecution through a number of legal maneuvers. Allies have argued that Mandelblit would be subverting democracy by seeking to remove Netanyahu from power, after his Likud party garnered over one million votes in last week’s election.
President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesdady tasked Netanyahu with forming a government, after gaining the backing of right-wing parties representing 65 Knesset seats.
Temple Mount sacrifices
Smotrich is also thought to be a candidate for public security minister, along with Likud’s Miri Regev.
As culture minister, Regev has been an outspoken critic of Israeli artists who have displayed what she considers to be disloyalty to the state.
The ministry, currently held by Likud’s Gilad Erdan, oversees the police, which includes the Border Police gendarme.
Both Regev and Smotrich have expressed support for increased religious freedom for Jews on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site and the third holiest for Muslims, who refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary or the Al Aqsa Mosque compound. The public security ministry oversees the police, and is tasked with maintaining calm between Jews and Muslims at the flash point site.
In accordance with a decades-old status quo at the site, Jews are allowed to visit the site at limited times and under close supervision, but not pray there or perform religious rituals. Jewish and Israeli police presence is closely monitored and vehemently opposed by Muslim authorities and the Palestinian public, and has led to numerous flare-ups in the past.
An anonymous police source was quoted by Channel 12 news Thursday night as saying that if Regev or Smotrich are appointed, “next year Jews will be allowed to perform ritual animal sacrifices” on the Jewish festival of Passover on the Temple Mount.
Four people were arrested Thursday for attempting to take a baby goat to the holy compound to sacrifice as part of a Passover ritual. Far-right activists often attempt to sacrifice animals on the Mount ahead of Jewish holidays.
The police source reportedly said the force’s preferred candidates to replace Erdan would be Likud MKs Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service, or Yoav Gallant, a former top general, and that they were agnostic toward Yariv Levin getting the nod.
The comments, made anonymously, appeared to be the first time the police were publicly protesting a particular candidate for public security minister.
In an official statement, however, the Israel Police distanced itself from the comments.
“The police are busy carrying out their duties and facing significant challenges, and do not deal with ministerial appointments,” it said in a tweet. “We regret remarks attributed to ‘unknown officials,’ and will accept any government decision.”
Also responding to the reports, Smotrich said he believed he would be appointed justice minister, not public security minister, but called police notions regarding Jews being allowed to perform religious rituals on the Temple Mount “a good idea.”
“I would be happy for more leaks and briefings with ideas by ‘senior officials’ in the Justice and Public Security ministries for important reforms ahead of the appointment. Happy Passover,” he tweeted.