Justice Minister Yariv Levin argued Monday that the indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in three corruption cases convinced the public of the need to reduce the powers of Israel’s judiciary, for the first time linking his controversial package of laws aimed at reining in the courts to the premier’s legal travails.
Government critics have long accused Netanyahu and allied lawmakers of seeking to overhaul the court system in order for the prime minister to wriggle out of criminal charges leveled against him. While Levin did not portray Netanyahu’s trial as the impetus for the judicial makeover he presented earlier this month, his comments to the Knesset plenum underlined the tangle of political and personal interests surrounding the hot-button issue.
His comments came as the coalition geared up to sell the sweeping court reform to a mostly skeptical public, appointing a Likud minister to head a propaganda campaign, as former prime minister Naftali Bennett weighed in against the plan for the first time, and a Likud lawmaker broke with the party by suggesting that the coalition engage the opposition in negotiating a legislative bargain.
Netanyahu is on trial in three corruption cases, facing charges of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies wrongdoing and claims the charges were fabricated in an attempted political coup led by the police, the state prosecution, the media, and leftist rivals.
Changes proposed by Levin include weakening the Supreme Court so that it will not be able to veto legislation and policies deemed unconstitutional, and granting the government control over the panel that selects judges. Critics say that along with other planned legislation, the overhaul will impact Israel’s democratic character by upsetting its system of checks and balances, granting almost all power to the executive branch, and leaving minorities undefended.
Reforming the court has been a major conservative goal for over a decade, with many on the right and among the ultra-Orthodox frustrated by what they see as an activist bench made up of progressives undermining the country’s right-wing majority.
“I fought for years for this path, which I believe in and which few shared,” said Levin, a rising star in Likud.
He was subsequently cut off by opposition lawmakers who cracked that the only thing that had changed in the interim is that Netanyahu found himself under indictment.
“I’ll tell you the truth, three indictments of this kind really contributed to the very wide public understanding that there are failures in the system that must be fixed. There is no doubt that they contributed a lot,” Levin responded.
Despite Levin’s claim, a survey published Sunday by the Israel Democracy Institute showed growing support over the last decade for the High Court being able to strike down laws that violate Israel’s democratic character, with most Israelis backing judicial review.
Levin also dismissed the widespread protests against his proposals that took place over the weekend and insisted that they would not deter him. Levin clarified that it is the right of every Israeli to protest but said that attempts to fearmonger and “paint [the plans] in colors that have no correlation to reality will not enact change.”
During the plenum session, opposition leader Yair Lapid claimed that the only reason Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri are backing Levin after years in which they refused to do so was because they are now both in legal trouble. Deri has twice been convicted of tax offenses and is awaiting a High Court of Justice decision on whether he will be allowed to stay on as minister.
Seeking to counter widespread opposition to the plan, Public Diplomacy Minister Galit Distel Atbaryan announced that she had reached out to the Prime Minister’s Office to establish an “emergency” body aimed at helping sell the government’s judicial plans to the public.
“In light of the panic created by deliberate deception on the part of the media and the left-wing parties, I intend to make the details of the reform available to the public,” Atbaryan tweeted, adding that Netanyahu had signed off on her proposal. “Soon Israel will become more democratic and the public will be able to receive more organized and factual information.”
Amid calls from center-right National Unity party head Benny Gantz to work with the government to negotiate compromises on the overhaul package, Likud MK David Bitan said it was likely that the coalition would wind up holding talks on toning down the proposals.
“I believe that it is possible to soften some of the clauses,” he told Channel 12 news.
Former prime minister Bennett, a right-wing politician who has also called in the past for courts to be reined in, weighed in on the controversy for the first time, criticizing Levin’s proposals while seemingly trying to strike a middle ground between the coalition and most of its critics in the opposition.
While he has long been in favor of reforms to Israel’s judiciary, “you don’t fix a historical distortion with another distortion,” Bennett tweeted.
The former prime minister, who bowed out of politics ahead of last year’s election, said there is “no choice” but for “both sides” of the debate to sit down for talks immediately.
Bennett said the opposition must understand that the public elected this government. “It has a mandate to make changes, there will be changes and that’s good.”
But the government must understand that it cannot “go to the opposite extreme of ending checks and balances, neutering the judicial system,” and giving the prime minister sole power to appoint judges, he added.
Levin’s current proposal is “dangerous” and will “harm the foundations of the State of Israel,” as well as cause divisions in society, Bennett said.