Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday rejected intense professional criticism of his government’s plan for sweeping judicial changes, a day after Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut warned their enactment would deal a “fatal blow” to the country’s democratic character.
In a video statement, Netanyahu argued that the right wing “discussed this before the elections and we received a clear mandate from the public for this.
“The amendments need to be made responsibly and with discretion while hearing out all positions, and that’s exactly the process that will now be carried out in parliament,” he said.
“I suggest everyone calm down and enter into a substantive discussion,” he added.
The premier said, “When they say that the smallest reform is the destruction of democracy, this is not only a false claim, but it also does not allow for the possibility of reaching understandings… through substantive dialogue in the Knesset.”
He asserted that the proposed overhaul was consistent with the democratic governing structure that prevailed in the decades following Israel’s founding.
“Democracy is built on the proper balance between the three branches and this balance exists in every democracy in the world. It also existed in Israel during the first 50 years. So there wasn’t democracy then? There wasn’t proper protection for minority rights? Obviously, there was, and that’s how it’ll also be after the reforms,” Netanyahu said.
Netanyahu was apparently referring to the major expansion of the High Court’s authority in the 1990s under former chief justice Aharon Barak.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid responded on Twitter: “You did not receive a mandate from the public to destroy democracy.”
Lapid added that “the majority of the Israeli public, including Likud voters, opposes a hasty and destructive reform that is based on your being too weak to deal with extremists in your government.”
Channel 12 news, citing an unnamed senior Likud source, reported Friday evening that the party may be open to compromise on the reform plan.
“Things will not remain as they were,” the source said of the justice system. “But [the changes] don’t need to be as radical as in Levin’s initial proposal.”
In her remarks, Hayut said Justice Minister Yariv Levin’s planned changes — which include drastically reducing the top court’s authority to review laws and granting politicians extensive control to determine the judiciary’s makeup — amounted to an “unrestrained attack on the justice system.”
The proposals would “crush the judiciary,” she said, and change Israel’s democratic identity “beyond recognition.”
Hayut spoke a day after Levin published the first pieces of draft legislation aimed at completely restructuring the legal system as announced last week.
The overhaul will grant the government total control over the appointment of judges, including to the High Court, severely limit the High Court’s ability to strike down legislation, and enable the Knesset to re-legislate laws the court does manage to annul with a majority of just 61 MKs.
Coalition officials say they aim to get the entire legislative package passed into law by the end of the current Knesset session.
Hayut’s position has been echoed by top former legal officials. Earlier Thursday, in an unprecedented move, almost all the attorneys general and state attorneys since 1975 signed a letter decrying the plan, saying it “threatens to destroy the justice system.”
Signatories included former attorneys general Avichai Mandelblit and Yehuda Weinstein; retired Supreme Court chiefs Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch; and retired Supreme Court justices Yitzhak Zamir, Elyakim Rubinstein, Meni Mazuz, Edna Arbel and Michael Ben-Yair.
Members of Netanyahu’s coalition lashed out at Hayut, as opposition chiefs cheered her for speaking out.
Shortly after her speech, Levin gave a scathing televised address from the Justice Ministry in which he accused Hayut of siding with Netanyahu’s political rivals and claimed she was encouraging unrest.
“It turns out that another [political] party exists in Israel,” Levin said. “We heard familiar rhetoric this evening from the Black Flag protests — this is the same political agenda. This is the same call to set the streets on fire.”
Levin, the No. 2 in Netanyahu’s Likud party, charged that Hayut’s speech did not contain any “statesmanship, neutrality or a balanced legal view,” but was rather “the remarks of politicians who incite protesters.”
He went on to accuse Hayut of “joining” with opposition leader Lapid and other opponents of the current government by speaking out against his proposed remake of the judiciary.
Likud MK Dudi Amsalem tweeted: “Was it not preferable for Chief Justice Hayut to give this exciting speech on Saturday night at Habima together with Ayman Odeh, Merav Michaeli, and the other representatives of the anarchic left?” He was referring to a planned protest in central Tel Aviv this weekend and a pair of opposition politicians.
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi asserted that Hayut’s opposition to Levin’s plans were not motivated by principle.
“This isn’t about democracy or human rights but rather the ruling clique and closed elite that she is a part of,” Karhi wrote on Twitter, adding: “It’s over!”
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said Hayut’s speech “only proves” why Levin’s proposed judicial shakeup was needed.
“The arrogance, demagoguery, entrenched positions, intolerance, shallowness of arguments and rejection of any shred of criticism, as we heard just now in the speech, brought the public trust in the judicial system to a nadir,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter. “The time has come for a restart.”
Amid the fiery criticism, Lapid and other heads of opposition parties voiced support for Hayut and issued fresh denunciations of Levin’s plans.
“I sign onto every word in the remarks of the Supreme Court president,” Lapid said. “We still stand together with her in the struggle for the country’s soul and against the effort to dismantle Israeli democracy.”
He also put out a separate statement on Levin’s response to Hayut.
“We won’t let you destroy Israeli democracy… Netanyahu is too weak to defend Israel. We will do this with all our strength,” Lapid said.
National Unity MK Gideon Sa’ar, Levin’s predecessor as justice minister, hailed Hayut’s “excellent speech” and accused the government of seeking to change Israel’s political structure.
“All lovers of liberty, regardless of political views, must unite in the struggle for Israel’s future,” he wrote on Twitter.
Labor party chief Merav Michaeli praised Hayut for speaking “without fear.”
“The planned reform is a dangerous constitutional coup and we will fight it until the bitter end. We won’t be silent when our country changes its face,” Michaeli said, quoting from a 1982 protest song against a Likud-led government.
She added: “I call on the [Supreme Court] president to continue fighting against the dangerous plan. The public is with you, we are with you.”
Hayut’s address, at a Haifa conference of the Israeli Association of Public Law, was likely the harshest speech ever delivered by a serving Supreme Court president against a ruling coalition.
“Israel this year will make 75 years of independence as a Jewish and a democratic state,” she said. “This is an important milestone in the life of the state.” But should the new government’s plans to radically alter Israel’s legal and justice system be implemented, the 75th year “will be remembered as the year in which Israel’s democratic identity suffered a fatal blow.”
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, who also spoke at the conference, issued a similar warning, saying the proposed overhaul will create an “imbalanced system of checks and balances,” and that “the principle of majority rule will push other democratic values into a corner.”