Ministry legal advisers are first target in coalition’s plan to remake judiciary

Knesset opens discussion of plan, with Justice Minister Yariv Levin saying he is ‘determined’ to push contentious reforms through against any ‘threat’

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

Justice Minister Yariv Levin attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin attends a Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting at the Knesset, January 11, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset took its first steps on Wednesday toward implementing the government’s controversial multi-point judicial reform plan, marking a proposal to curtail the independence of government legal advisers as its first subject for scrutiny.

Opening the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee’s first of many expected meetings on judicial reform, chair MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism) said that starting Sunday, his panel would discuss the government’s plan to allow “the government and ministers to determine their legal position in their ongoing operations and in the courtroom,” as opposed to being constrained by legal advice from the attorney general.

Last week, Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented what he called the first four steps of the cabinet’s reform plan. In addition to letting ministers choose their own legal advisers, rather than their current subordination to the Justice Ministry, Levin said the government would restrict the High Court of Justice’s capacity to strike down laws and government decisions, by requiring an enlarged panel of the court’s judges and a “special majority” to do so, and including an “override clause” enabling the Knesset to re-legislate such laws unless all 15 justices unanimously ruled to strike them down; change the process for choosing judges, to give the government effective control of the selection panel; and prevent the court from using a test of “reasonableness” against which to judge legislation and government decisions, most recently employed to debate the propriety of Aryeh Deri’s appointment as a minister in light of his criminal convictions.

Corresponding bills have yet to be submitted.

Sitting next to Rothman at the charged committee hearing, Levin said that he was “determined to pass this reform that I initiated and no threat will dissuade me.”

Nevertheless, both he and Rothman — who pledged to run his committee hearings five days a week to push through the reforms — solicited opposition participation in the debate process, albeit not in the backroom drafting of the legislation.

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Last week, key opposition figure MK Benny Gantz made a public plea to Levin and his Likud party leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to invite the opposition into the judicial reform process. The offer was rebuffed.

“All of them will be heard, calmly and in depth,” Rothman said of opposition lawmakers, Justice Ministry officials, and experts. “When we feel that the time is ripe to move toward formulations and solutions, we will do so, but only after the discussion has been exhausted.”

“Most important,” Levin added to opposition MKs joining the committee debates, “is to listen.”

Gantz, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, and Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara have been major voices cautioning against the government’s judicial reform platform, which they claim will harm democracy and endanger civil liberties. Setting a tone expected in several of the committee’s future judicial reform hearings, opposition lawmakers disrupted the meeting to shout that the plan would lead to the “destruction of the judicial system,” and laughed out loud when Levin insisted that it would improve democracy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at Knesset faction meeting of his Likud party, January 9, 2023 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu has claimed that the November elections that returned him to power gave his government a “mandate” to pursue its ambitious judicial remake. However, surveys have found that even among Likud voters, opinions are split on whether to change the court’s powers, composition, and oversight over the Knesset.

In addition to a host of former Supreme Court justices and former senior legal officials opining on judicial reform, some 10,000 Israelis took to the streets last Saturday to protest the policies. Dominated by centrist and left-wing protesters, the Tel Aviv gathering is slated to repeat itself this coming Saturday.

On Tuesday, Otzma Yehudit MK Zvika Fogel called for the arrest of the “treasonous” Lapid and Gantz for backing the mass protests against the judicial reform plan and warning of the deep divisions in Israeli society it is exacerbating.

Gantz on Monday said that the government’s reform plan sets Israel on a path toward “civil war” and called for lawful demonstrations against it in the streets, alongside similar calls from Lapid.

Most Popular
read more: