'I will always defend the independence of the judiciary'

Netanyahu in weekend interview: Overhaul necessary as Supreme Court ‘too powerful’

Prime minister says Knesset shouldn’t be able to ‘nullify’ court decisions, but claims overhaul will make Israel a ‘stronger democracy’; complains debate in Israel one-sided

British journalist Piers Morgan (left) interviews Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London, March 25, 2023. (YouTube screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
British journalist Piers Morgan (left) interviews Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in London, March 25, 2023. (YouTube screenshot: Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In an interview recorded Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted his government’s planned judicial overhaul was necessary as the Supreme Court is “too powerful,” claiming the controversial attempts to neuter the court would result in a “stronger democracy.”

While the interview was expected to air Monday evening, it was released online hours earlier amid concerns it was fast becoming outdated as the country was roiled by mass protests and Netanyahu was expected to announce a freeze to the controversial overhaul.

Netanyahu gave the interview in London, where he accused Israel’s High Court of “nullifying” government actions by means of its “unacceptable” interventions.

“There’s a lot of tension right now and I wish it wasn’t so, but I’m quite confident that we’ll get over this difficulty because you have to reform things that get ossified,” he said in the interview with Piers Morgan.

Netanyahu’s coalition, a collection of right-wing, ultranationalist, and ultra-Orthodox parties, has barreled ahead with legislation that aims to weaken the court’s ability to serve as a check on parliament, as well as give the government control over the appointment of judges.

The interview aired as mass nationwide demonstrations raged for the 12th week in a row over the government’s plans. On Sunday night, spontaneous protests broke out across the country after Netanyahu ousted Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for calling for a halt to the legislation.

The protests continued on Monday, in addition to a general strike called by the Histadrut labor union that shuttered schools, kindergartens, and businesses, and grounded outgoing flights from Ben Gurion Airport.

“There is one consideration that the critics and the opponents of the judicial reform raise, and I think it’s a valid concern and that is: You want to go from one extreme to the center. You don’t want the pendulum to swing to the other side where the Knesset, our Parliament, can nullify any decision of the Supreme Court and I think that requires a balance. I agree with that,” Netanyahu told Morgan.

Opponents of the overhaul have drawn a line in the sand on the judicial appointments bill, saying it will politicize the court, remove key checks on governmental power and cause grievous harm to Israel’s democratic character.

The premier repeated his claim that the overhaul would actually make Israel a “stronger democracy.”

“What we have in Israel is the ossification of the imbalance between the three branches of government. This happened in the last 20 years. It’s been building up, building up and building up,” he said.

“And people say we want to correct that and you know people who are used to one thing don’t want to correct itself [sic],” he said, before Morgan challenged him that critics believed it was regime change rather than reform.

Masses protest outside the Knesset against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, in Jerusalem, March 27, 2023. (Miriam Pomerantz)

“The thing that has to be understood is what is a democracy. Democracy is a majority rule with a protection of individual rights and to get these two things what you have is the checks and balances between the three branches of government — the legislative, the executive and the judicial. Everybody understands that,” he said.

“In Israel, over the last 20 years that balance has been taken off the rails because the judiciary became — not independent, it’s always been independent, will always be independent — it became all-powerful, so it can nullify any decision of the parliament, the Knesset, and it can be a legal law that they say is not reasonable,” he said.

“There is no checks and balances,” he said.

“In Israel, the discussion is so narrow and so one-sided they say how could it be the judges will be chosen by elected officials and I say: Hello, this is what is being done in every democracy,” he claimed.

Backers of the legislation have made the claim that the proposed changes bring Israel into line with other democracies, such as Ireland.

But former Irish justice minister Alan Shatter described the judicial overhaul as “politicized, opportunistic, ill-thought-out [and] regressive,” and said the entire package should “instantly be put in cold storage,” at a conference hosted by the Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday.

He noted that in Ireland the large majority of members on its Judicial Appointments Advisory Board are either judges or legal professionals, and that there are no politicians at all on the panel, although three of the members are appointed by the justice minister. That board submits a list of recommended candidates for a judicial post to the justice minister, who then submits his own recommendation from that list to the cabinet for approval, he explained.

By contrast, the legislation that the Israeli government is poised to approve would give an automatic majority to the governing coalition on the Judicial Selection Committee, and likely allow it to control all lower court appointments and the large majority of Supreme Court appointments.

Former Irish justice minister Alan Shatter speaks at a conference held by the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, March 26, 2023. (Oded Karni)

“I absolutely will always defend the independence of the judiciary and the way that’s achieved in all the democracies in which judges are appointed by elected officials,” Netanyahu said in the interview.

While Netanyahu has gone on a blitz of international media interviews over the past few months, attempting to explain the overhaul, he has notably not spoken to Israeli media.

Protest leaders on Friday announced an unprecedented nationwide “week of paralysis” aimed at upending daily life in the country, including mass protests in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

There have been weekly mass protests for nearly three months against the planned legislation, and a rising wave of objections by top public figures including the president, jurists and business leaders.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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