Netanyahu blasts ‘baseless’ claim judicial overhaul would end Israeli democracy

PM says coalition is carrying out the will of the people, a day after former Supreme Court president attacked the planned reforms and thousands demonstrated in Tel Aviv

Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (2nd L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzahi Braverman (R) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 8, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)
Justice Minister Yariv Levin (L), Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (2nd L), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzahi Braverman (R) at a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 8, 2023 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back on Sunday against criticism of his coalition’s proposed controversial judicial overhaul, saying that the overhaul would strengthen democracy rather than hasten its end and that his government was carrying out the will of the people.

“The justice minister presented the first stage of the planned reform. The claim that this reform is the end of democracy is baseless,” said Netanyahu at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, underlining his firm support for the proposals unveiled by Justice Minister Yariv Levin on Wednesday.

Netanyahu’s comments came a day after the plans were attacked by a former Supreme Court president, and thousands demonstrated in Tel Aviv against them.

“The truth is that the balance between the branches in the governmental system has been violated over the last two decades, and even more so in recent years,” charged Netanyahu.

“The attempt to restore the correct balance between the branches is not the destruction of democracy, but the strengthening of democracy,” the premier said. Opposition lawmakers had also been known to speak out against “judicial activism,” he added.

Netanyahu also rejected a proposal for the establishment of a committee to discuss the planned judicial reform, and slammed what he called “unbridled incitement” against Levin, claiming he had been compared to the Nazis.

“We received a clear and strong mandate from the public to carry out what we promised in the elections, and we will do so. This is the realization of the voters’ will, and this is the essence of democracy,” Netanyahu said.

Levin, a close ally of Netanyahu, on Wednesday presented plans for a sweeping judicial overhaul that would drastically limit the authority of the High Court of Justice to block legislation and government decisions deemed discriminatory and/or undemocratic, abolish “reasonableness” as a test by which justices can weigh legality, give the government control over judicial selection, and eliminate ministry legal advisers appointed by the attorney general.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin unveils his plan for overhauling the judicial system during a press conference at the Knesset on January 4, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

If enacted, the reforms would amount to arguably the most drastic changes ever to Israel’s system of government.

Levin said his proposals, which the new government has vowed to rapidly pass into law, would restore democracy and strengthen the court. He claimed that judicial activism had ruined public trust in the legal system and made it impossible for governments to rule effectively.

However, critics say the controversial reforms will remove the judiciary’s role as a check on the power of the ruling majority and thus constitute an assault on human rights.

In interviews broadcast Saturday by all three major networks, former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak pleaded with Levin to reconsider the planned reforms, warning that they essentially give all power to the prime minister, leave citizens with no defense against the removal of any and all of their rights, and would mark the beginning of the end of the modern State of Israel.

Barak said he was sorry to be depicted as “the enemy of the people” for ostensibly unilaterally extending the court’s authority — something he denied doing.

“If putting me to death would put an end to this drastic shake-up,” he said, “I’d be prepared to go before a firing squad.”

Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak in a January 7, 2023 TV interview (Channel 13 screenshot)

The retired chief of justice said he felt an obligation to warn the public that “the rights of everybody — Jew, Arab, ultra-Orthodox, not ultra-Orthodox — are in grave danger.” If Levin’s proposals are fully implemented, “nobody will protect them” from the political majority of the day, since the Knesset is powerless to resist a majority coalition, and Israel has no constitution, no Bill of Rights, and no second House. “Your right to dignity, to freedom, to life,” he told Israelis, “will be gravely harmed — and there will no court to turn to.”

Levin, said Barak, “has assembled all the bad proposals… into a chain that is strangling Israeli democracy.” They provide for the “cancellation of judicial oversight” — what he called the constitutional equivalent “of a coup with tanks. “Israel will turn into a “hollow democracy” like Turkey, Poland and Hungary, Barak specified. “We’ll be on the edge of the abyss, taking one more step.”

Barak’s three TV interviews were followed in each case by interviews with Levin, who expressed “respect” for Barak, but claimed the retired court president “does not understand the essence of democracy,” and dismissed as “time-wasting” the notion of establishing a committee with Barak to try to work toward a compromise on his proposals.

Barak, who said he had never met or spoken with Levin but would be pleased to do so to try to help reach a compromise on his proposals, also urged other government ministers and MKs to oppose Levin’s plan and for the public to resist by all legal means.

At the same time the interviews were broadcast, several thousand Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against the new government — Israel’s most hardline to date — and the controversial judicial reform.

In a joint statement, the protest organizers charged that “extreme and dangerous elements in the new government” were trying to “harm us all,” accusing the ruling coalition of targeting Arabs and discriminating on the basis of gender and sexuality.

Coalition agreements signed prior to the new government’s swearing-in call for legislation that would allow service providers to refuse service on the grounds of their religious beliefs — an initiative seen by critics as legalizing discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community, as well as Arabs and women.

Israelis attend a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Netanyahu, in his comments Sunday, also addressed the ongoing protests in Iran, condemning the recent execution of two young men who allegedly killed a paramilitary force member during protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in custody.

“Over the weekend, the terrorist regime in Iran executed two young Iranian citizens who demonstrated against the tyranny of the government. Israel strongly condemns this criminal murder,” Netanyahu said.

“We salute the Iranian citizens who fight valiantly for their freedom. They sacrifice their lives for basic civil rights, they expose to the whole world the true and ugly face of the oppressive regime in Tehran — a regime that threatens its citizens, the countries of the region and the peace of the entire world,” said Netanyahu, who has long vowed not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

“I have been saying this for 20 years and today, I am pleased that more and more people, and more and more governments around the world, understand this,” he said.

The premier also said the government would soon present emergency measures to tackle the skyrocketing cost of living, and welcomed the security cabinet’s approval of a series of sanctions against the Palestinian Authority in response to Ramallah’s successful initiative at the United Nations to have the International Court of Justice draft a legal opinion on Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories.

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