Outgoing Bar Association chief slams ‘delusional, dangerous’ judicial overhaul plans

Avi Himi accuses Justice Minister Levin of seeking to ‘destroy democracy,’ says his proposals will make Israel ‘a dictatorship’; chair of Knesset law panel calls for AG to resign

President of the Israel Bar Association Avi Himi speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
President of the Israel Bar Association Avi Himi speaks at a conference in Tel Aviv, September 2, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

The outgoing head of the Israel Bar Association said Friday that a judicial overhaul announced this week by new Justice Minister Yariv Levin would “turn Israel into a dictatorship.”

Defense attorney Avi Himi, who took the reins of the scandal-battered association in 2019 with a promise to rehabilitate it, announced in December that he would not run for a new term this June in protest of policies being pushed by the new government.

Himi charged that Levin “wants to destroy democracy in the country,” during an interview Friday with Channel 12 news. “He has a delusional, dangerous plan to turn Israel into a dictatorship.”

“Whoever has a plan like this is a bad person in my view. I am the last to run away, I am simply expressing a genuine, personal protest,” Himi said.

The intended changes proposed Wednesday by Levin, a top member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, would drastically limit the authority of the High Court of Justice to block legislation and government decisions deemed discriminatory and/or undemocratic, give the government control over judicial selection, and eliminate ministry legal advisers appointed by the attorney general.

Critics have warned that the overhaul, which Israel’s new hard-right coalition has said it will prioritize, would remove the judiciary’s role as the only effective check on the power of the ruling majority. Proponents argue that court rulings overturning legislation or government decisions subvert the will of Israeli voters.

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)

In Friday’s interview, Himi warned the proposed changes could have a knock-on effect and that the government may then target other state institutions.

“Today they want to loosen the grip of the High Court, tomorrow they’ll take care of media and close the public broadcaster, the day after they will harm the Bar Association, a body that represents the entire private sector. They want it also to be chained to the government, and later they will want to put us into administrative detention,” he charged.

Himi also complained that the justice minister did not consult with members of the judiciary before presenting his plans.

The attorney questioned the necessity for reforms to the judicial selection process, noting that 95 percent of judges in the past four years have been chosen with full agreement by the current panel, comprised of elected officials who share in making the appointments with senior judicial figures and legal professionals.

“Most of the judges are picked unanimously, because they are professional, because they have compassion, because they are humble and they are worthy people that have grown in the justice system,” he said.

Meanwhile, in remarks published Saturday by the Ynet news site, the newly-appointed chair of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee said the attorney general should resign if she cannot represent the government’s legal stance.

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

“The right and duty of the attorney general is to represent the government’s position, and if she is unable to do so, she should resign. She certainly has no right to prevent the government from presenting its authentic position in court,” said MK Simcha Rothman, a member of the far-right Religious Zionism party, in an interview.

“This is clear to anyone with a basic understanding, and for those who the matter is not clear to them, it may be necessary to clarify in additional ways,” he said.

Rothman was referring to Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who this week refused to defend the appointment of Shas leader Aryeh Deri as a government minister in High Court of Justice proceedings, saying his past criminal convictions, including one less than 12 months ago, should bar him from office.

Deri was sworn in last week as interior and health minister in Netanyahu’s government.

The High Court convened on Thursday to discuss petitions demanding the annulment of Deri’s appointment, under the shadow of the declared coalition plans to hobble the court’s power.

According to a television poll aired Friday, 42 percent of Israelis believe the changes unveiled by Levin are aimed at freezing Netanyahu’s ongoing trial on corruption charges — in which he denies wrongdoing — and ensuring Deri’s appointment as minister.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the same survey said it was inappropriate for Deri to be a minister, with less than a quarter supporting the ultra-Orthodox party leader’s membership in the cabinet.

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