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Analysis

Likud voters just handed Netanyahu a mandate to remake the judicial system

MKs Yariv Levin, Amir Ohana and David Amsalem – long heavily critical of the Supreme Court’s power – placed in the top five in the party’s primary

Carrie Keller-Lynn

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

Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after voting next to his wife Sara in a primary to fill out the party's Knesset slate, in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)
Likud party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after voting next to his wife Sara in a primary to fill out the party's Knesset slate, in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

In its first primary since 2019, Likud voters on Wednesday delivered leader Benjamin Netanyahu an early election present: a list that, if the party returns to power in November, could bring his judicial reform dreams to fruition.

Netanyahu has for years pushed to reform the judiciary, having failed in 2015 to secure legislative changes that would have enabled greater political control over judicial appointments and raised the number of Supreme Court justices required to deem a law unconstitutional.

At the end of 2016, police began investigating the then-prime minister for alleged corruption, culminating in his ongoing trial in three graft cases. Netanyahu maintains his innocence and claims the charges were fabricated by a politically motivated police force and state prosecution, backed by left-wing politicians and a leftist media, enabled by a weak attorney general.

In recent years, he has repeatedly denied that he would seek to advance legislation to extricate himself from the trial, but has advocated for judicial reform, including limiting the Supreme Court’s right to strike down legislation. His political and judicial critics are adamant that, if he has the votes, he would seek to shift the balance between the judiciary on one hand, and the executive and legislature on the other, including preventing Supreme Court intervention on matters relating to politicians’ immunity from prosecution.

Of late, Netanyahu has often left it to his closest legislative colleague, Likud Knesset faction director, Yariv Levin, to push calls to reform the system by which judicial appointments are made, curtail the Supreme Court’s ability to check the Knesset, and weaken the attorney general.

As Likud’s primary results rolled in on Thursday, it became clear that some of the party’s loudest critics of the justice system and law enforcement had been catapulted to top slots on the Knesset slate for November 1’s general elections, with Levin at the summit, immediately below Netanyahu himself.

The pattern was so pronounced that The Times of Israel’s Hebrew-language sister site, Zman Yisrael, called the slate “the Yair Netanyahu list,” after the prime minister’s son, who is influential both on Twitter and with his father. Yair Netanyahu, who branded the opening of proceedings against his father at Jerusalem District Court two years ago a “show trial,” is a strident critic of the judicial establishment.

Levin, the winner in Thursday’s primaries, last month said he planned to “end rule by judges.” According to his spokesman, Levin’s flagship legal reform would be to transfer Supreme Court justice selection from a committee to government politicians.

In the past, Levin has also supported a bill to enable a simple majority of 61 MKs to reinstate a law invalidated by the Supreme Court. Such a superseding clause would effectively neuter the court’s check on legislative power.

Since 1995’s so-called constitutional revolution, the Supreme Court has exercised its discretion to invalidate laws it judges as violating Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, and later, extended that override role to laws it deems violating human rights.

Likud party member Yariv Levin arrives to cast his vote in the Likud primaries, at a polling station in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Levin has also said that he wants to curtail the attorney general’s role, making the position advisory to the government, rather than decision-making.

The rise of former justice and public safety minister Amir Ohana, voter pick number five, and David Amsalem, number four, further underscore the focus on judicial reform at the top of the Likud slate.

As a new justice minister in 2019, Ohana drew justices’ ire for saying that not all Supreme Court decisions needed to be enforced, a statement he later walked back. In 2020, Ohana picked fights with the police force he oversaw for not sufficiently cracking down on protesters outside of then-prime minister Netanyahu’s door.

Amsalem spent the past year in the opposition railing against the Supreme Court, calling justices “detached” from society, and ultimately introducing legislation to transfer judicial appointments from a professional-political committee to political echelons.

Further down the list, MKs Yoav Kisch in spot six and Shlomo Karhi at number 12 attacked the independence of the attorney general last month, saying they would swap her out if she made a politically unpalatable decision.

A cardboard cutout of Amir Ohana awaits voters in the Likud primaries at a polling station in Ashdod on August 10, 2022. (Flash90)

The significance of Thursday’s primary results wasn’t lost upon political allies as well. Judicial Selection Committee member and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman told Ynet approvingly that Likud voters had chosen candidates who support curtailing the Supreme Court’s power. “The Likud’s elected list is a significant boost in the fight to strengthen the justice system and I am sure that in the upcoming elections the public will vote in favor of reforming the justice system,” Rothman said.

“Likud voters got it,” he added. “Every issue in the country goes through the judicial system.”

In May, United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus was filmed saying that his dream would be to “blow up” the Supreme Court. While understood to be hyperbole, some of the reform camp’s suggestions would fundamentally alter the character of Israel’s highest court.

Netanyahu’s centrist political rival and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz has conducted a months-long courtship with UTJ leader Moshe Gafni, hanging perhaps farfetched hopes on being able to lure his ultra-Orthodox party away from the Netanyahu bloc. Netanyahu’s newly-minted judicial reform roster might be another sweetener to encourage Gafni to stay the right-religious course.

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