Levin said to call for judges who ‘understand’ why Jews don’t want to live near Arabs

Justice minister reportedly makes comment on High Court to cabinet; report says coalition plans to stick with custom, naming only one member to judicial appointments panel

Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a cabinet in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin at a cabinet in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the chief architect of the suspended judicial overhaul legislation, reportedly told the cabinet on Sunday that the Supreme Court must feature justices who “understand” why Jewish Israelis would not be “prepared to live with Arabs” in mixed localities.

“Arabs buy apartments in Jewish communities in the Galilee and this causes Jews to leave these cities, because they are not prepared to live with Arabs. We need to ensure that the Supreme Court has justices who understand this,” said Levin, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

His reported remark was meant to be an argument in favor of controversial legislation that would bring judicial appointments under political control, as part of the suspended push to overhaul the judiciary and dramatically reduce the powers of the High Court of Justice.

It came as the cabinet also held a discussion on a proposed government resolution advanced by the far-right Otzma Yehudit party to assert “Zionist values” in government policy, a move that would seemingly enable giving Jewish Israelis preferential treatment in housing planning and construction.

The discussion on the resolution, which is opposed by the Attorney General’s Office, was ultimately pushed off, although it was unclear how long for.

The drive to radically overhaul Israel’s judiciary was suspended in late March amid unprecedented mass protests and a nationwide economic strike. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would halt the plans to allow for talks with the opposition under the auspices of President Isaac Herzog, aimed at finding a broadly accepted compromise for judicial reform.

But months of talks have not yielded a breakthrough, and pressure has increased within the coalition to resume the legislative push.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu said last week, following the passage of the state budget, that “of course” the overhaul was back on the government’s agenda. Later that day, however, he added: “We will of course continue with our efforts to arrive at a broad consensus agreement, to the extent possible, on the issue of judicial reform.”

One of the centerpieces of the overhaul is legislation that would grant governing coalitions extensive control over the overwhelming majority of judicial appointments in Israel, by giving them a built-in majority on the Judicial Selection Committee.

The bill is on the cusp of being passed into law, and can be brought for its final, back-to-back votes in the Knesset plenum at a moment’s notice.

However, such action is almost sure to lead to a resumption of intense public opposition.

The Yesh Atid party and other opposition sources cited by Hebrew media over the weekend said they will demand that an opposition member, Yesh Atid MK Karine Elharrar, be selected as one of the two lawmakers on the soon-to-be-formed Judicial Selection Committee, or else they will walk away from the compromise talks.

Karine Elharrar holds a press conference in Jerusalem, May 30, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It has been customary over the years to select one coalition MK and one opposition MK to serve on the panel, though this isn’t mandatory and the coalition could elect to pick two coalition lawmakers. Earlier this month, Government Secretary Yossi Fuchs threatened to choose two coalition MKs if there was no agreement between the government and the opposition in the compromise talks.

However, according to a Channel 12 news report Sunday, the coalition will not choose two lawmakers for the panel and instead will nominate one, in keeping with tradition.

A regular majority is needed to elect a lower court judge and a majority of seven out of nine members required to elect a Supreme Court judge, meaning that neither the coalition, nor the opposition, nor the judiciary have a majority on the panel, and that both the government and the judiciary have a veto over Supreme Court appointments, so that the next head of the Israel Bar Association will play a key role.

The Knesset must pick its two representatives by June 15. The panel also includes three sitting Supreme Court justices, two members of the Bar Association, the justice minister and another minister.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut and other justices at a hearing of the High Court of Justice, January 5, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The opposition is also demanding that the committee convene soon after its parliamentary members are chosen — by the end of June — setting a de facto deadline for the compromise talks. The opposition says this is needed to fill dozens of currently unfilled judge positions in various courts around the country.

Although the committee will technically be able to convene after the lawmakers are elected by secret ballot, authority to convene the panel and appoint judges rests with Levin, who is unlikely to do so before legislating a change to the committee’s composition that will give the coalition greater control over the process of choosing judges.

Critics say the overhaul will sap the High Court of Justice of its power to act as a check and balance against parliament, dangerously eroding Israel’s democratic character. Supporters say the legislation is needed to rein in what they see as an over-intrusive court system.

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