Meretz warns of takeover of judicial system en route to coup

Netanyahu ally set to unveil legal reforms that could curtail former PM’s trial

Smotrich, eyeing Justice Ministry, said aiming to scrap ‘fraud and breach of trust’ offense, give MKs majority on panel that picks judges; Likud: Plan won’t impact Netanyahu trial

Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks to the press in Ramat Gan, August 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich speaks to the press in Ramat Gan, August 23, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The far-right Religious Zionism party is set to unveil on Tuesday a plan “to correct the legal system,” a program that has already attracted criticism for proposing changes that would lead to the cancellation of most of Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s graft trial.

Religious Zionism chair Bezalel Smotrich expressed hope on Saturday that his joint slate with Otzma Yehudit would receive up to five ministerial positions in a potential future coalition under Netanyahu, including the justice portfolio. The opposition leader’s Likud party and its allies have vowed far-reaching reforms to the legal system if they return to power after the November 1 elections.

According to Channel 12 news, the first major proposal in the Religious Zionism plan would be the abolition of the criminal charge of fraud and breach of trust, faced by Netanyahu in his current trial on three counts.

Netanyahu is accused of fraud and breach of trust in cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in addition to bribery charges in the latter case.

The report said Religious Zionism believed the charge is too ambiguous and means cases are “trumped up” for many politicians.

The second prong of the party’s program could lead to a fundamental change to the court system, with a proposal to change the makeup of the Judicial Selection Committee.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the Jerusalem District Court for a hearing in his corruption trial on May 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Right-wing politicians have long attacked the legal system, with particular emphasis on the Supreme Court over its composition and its rulings, claiming it overreaches to impose a liberal agenda, and have called for drastically limiting its powers of judicial oversight.

The Judicial Selection Committee is made up of nine members — currently five judges from the Supreme Court and representatives of the Bar Association, and four MKs.

Instead, the Religious Zionism party says the committee should give a majority to lawmakers, meaning MKs will have significant power over the selection of judges.

Immediately after the Religious Zionism plan was reported, it was attacked by Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who said the only aim of the program was to cancel Netanyahu’s trial.

“In the coalition negotiations in 2019, Smotrich proposed to change the immunity law for Knesset members. Now he proposes the abolition of the crime of fraud and breach of trust. The goal is the same: canceling Netanyahu’s trial,” Sa’ar tweeted.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 12, 2022 (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/POOL)

Meretz leader Zehava Galon charged that the plan was a “hostile takeover of the judicial system as part of the attempt to stage a coup d’état.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Likud party appeared to give tacit backing to Smotrich’s plan, saying only that the changes would not be retroactive and would therefore have no impact on Netanyahu’s trial.

Meanwhile, a senior member of the Religious Zionism party said that “any official can be fired, even the chief of staff.”

Simcha Rothman made the comment when asked about the upcoming meeting of the Senior Appointments Advisory Committee to discuss the approval of Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi as new IDF chief of staff.

Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman at a Knesset Arrangements Committee meeting on June 21, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I think that any appointment that the government makes, whatever it is, can be revoked,” Rothman told Radio 103FM.

“Nobody should receive an automatic certificate of immunity. If he is suitable, he will stay, if he is not suitable, he will not stay,” Rothman said.

If the committee approves Halevi, the cabinet will then need to give final approval, a process that may be difficult to complete before the November 1 elections. If the election results are unfavorable for the coalition and a government is formed by the current opposition, Halevi’s appointment may be stymied altogether.

Maj. Gen. Herzi Halevi, the then-commander of the IDF Southern Command, speaks during a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit is widely forecast by opinion polls to become the third-largest faction in the Knesset following the elections. Should Likud’s Netanyahu retake power, the far-right slate is expected to play a major role in his coalition government. From 2019 to 2020, Smotrich served as transportation minister in a previous Netanyahu-led cabinet.

The slate is a joint run between Religious Zionism and the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit, the latter led by firebrand lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, as well as the anti-LGBT Noam party led by MK Avi Maoz.

Otzma Yehudit was established in 2012 but was unable to garner enough support to enter the Knesset until 2021, when Netanyahu mediated an alliance between the party and Religious Zionism in a bid to prevent right-wing votes from going to waste in that year’s election. Ben Gvir’s popularity has surged on the hard right since he entered the Knesset.

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