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Levin: Judges 'force their values on society'

Likud’s judicial reform plan seeks to end ‘rule by judges’ and constrain the AG

Faction chair Yariv Levin, close to Netanyahu and considered the Likud’s legal reform champion, wants politicians to choose judges and the nation’s top jurist to just offer advice

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

Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and faction chair Yariv Levin (R) lead their party's faction meeting at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud party head Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and faction chair Yariv Levin (R) lead their party's faction meeting at the Knesset, May 23, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As centrist and left-wing parties attack the right-wing Likud party and its religious partners for advocating reforms that will increase political control over Israel’s judiciary, a Likud lawmaker said on Sunday that the goal was to end “rule by judges” and to reduce the role of the attorney general.

“The situation of ‘rule by judges’ is not democracy,” Likud chair Yariv Levin told Army Radio, adding that “the time has come for clear legislation to define the authority of the attorney general, which is supposed to advise, and not make decisions instead of the government, not dictate to it.”

Right-wing politicians have long sought to water-down judges’ ability to strike down legislation, seeing the Supreme Court as a bastion of left-wing ideology.

That push now appears as a November 1 election issue, alongside whether to return indicted Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to his former perch in the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu opponents charge that the bid to change the judicial system is a ploy to help the former prime minister escape his ongoing trial. Netanyahu allies argue that the legal system is overly powerful and biased, and that his corruption charges were concocted by political enemies and facilitated by a weak attorney general.

Levin, a lawmaker who is considered particularly close to Netanyahu and who is leading the drive for policy reforms, is pushing for what he called “fundamental change.”

According to his spokesman, Levin’s flagship legal reform would be to transfer Supreme Court justice selection from a committee to government politicians.

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut speaks at a swearing in ceremony for newly appointed judges at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, on May 9, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As previewed in June, the Likud’s plan would be to replace the current Judicial Selection Committee, under which elected officials share responsibility for appointing the 15 Supreme Court justices with senior judicial figures and legal professionals. Instead, the government will nominate candidates, and the Knesset will approve them.

While the current system has been subject to fair criticism and multiple reform attempts, the Likud’s proposed reform would functionally deliver a rubber stamp to government ministers to push through candidates.

The court developed a reputation as a bastion of liberal thought under former leader Aharon Barak in the mid-1990s, and has been pilloried by the right ever since, as a club of unelected elites attempting to subvert the will of right-wing voters. In recent years, as the right wing has amassed power, more conservative judges have been added to the bench, tempering the court’s alleged bias, though not the claims against it.

Then-Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, in the plenum hall, June 9, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Levin joined several right-wing and ultra-Orthodox lawmakers by arguing that it still maintains a “radical leftist” viewpoint, and that it needs to be remade by politicians to be more representative of Israel.

“They [justices] take advantage of their power, which is supposed to be used for something entirely different in order to force their values on society,” Levin said.

A second area in which “rule by judges” can be curtailed is in strengthening laws to overcome Supreme Court decisions. Since 1995’s so-called constitutional revolution, the Supreme Court has exercised its discretion to invalidate laws it judged as violating Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws, and later, to laws violating human rights.

In June 2021, shortly after Likud fell into the opposition, Levin proposed a bill that would give a simple majority of 61 lawmakers the ability to reinstate laws invalidated by the court, effectively neutering the judiciary’s ability to check the parliament’s power.

The anti-Netanyahu camp charges that such a rule could be used as a potential tool to end his trial. Likud sources deny that they plan to renew the bid after the election.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, May 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

In addition to attacking the previous attorney general, several Likud lawmakers have threatened to replace the current attorney general, Gali Baharav Miara, because she approved the defense minister’s appointment of a new military chief of staff on the eve of an election.

Levin seemingly walked back some of his colleague’s more extreme statements, saying that the issues with the attorney general were broader than a single person, but without committing to let Baharav Miara finish out her six-year term.

“We won’t solve the issue with a personnel change, here or there,” Levin said, adding instead that the attorney general role should be legally narrowed to only advise, not dictate decisions to the government, a position shared by some politicians opposed to Netanyahu returning to power.

One area in which right-wing Levin agrees with several left-wing academics is in tightening up language related to the criminal offense of “fraud and breach of trust,” a poorly defined statute that is at the heart of Netanyahu’s trial.

The charge can cover everything from not reporting an expensive meal to using your positions to pull strings for a friend.

Levin said the charge was too vague to be legality kosher. “It has an essential problem, it’s an amorphous offense,” he said.

“I don’t think we need to cancel this offense, but we need to define it a lot more precisely,” he said.

Former prime minister MK Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for a court hearing in his trial, at the District Court in Jerusalem on May 31, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While choosing another tack from party lawmaker Miri Regev — who last week advocated for pausing Netanyahu’s trial during election season — Levin said that there is no reason why the trial “wouldn’t make it to its end,” except if prosecutors realized they “made a mistake.”

He was also non-committal on the controversial subject of the so-called French Law, a potential bill that prevents criminal investigation of a sitting prime minister.

“It’s not on the table,” Levin said.

A former vice chairman of the Israeli Bar Association, Levin has been involved in legal reform since first joining the Likud’s Knesset slate in 2009. A godson of Likud founder Menachem Begin, his star quickly rose, and he has served as a minister three times, and most recently, as Knesset speaker, until Likud lost power in 2021.

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