“We go to the polls, vote, elect, and time after time, people we didn’t elect choose for us!” These words from new Israeli Minister of Justice Yariv Levin at a press conference on Wednesday struck a chord with many Israelis. But there are dissenting voices.
“Many sectors of the public look to the judicial system and do not find their voices heard,” Levin continued. “That is not democracy.”
The justice minister added that he has been “dealing with this issue for over 20 years. I’ve warned against the damage caused by judicialization. Now, the time has come to act. These reforms will strengthen the legal system, and restore the public’s trust in it. They will restore order: It will allow the legislatures to legislate, the government to govern, legal advisers to advise, and judges to judge.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the announcement, stating that his government will implement reforms that “ensure the proper balance between the three powers.” Of course, the right-wing religious government’s judicial reforms have been heavily criticized by the opposition and the judicial system. Everyone is talking about the “destruction of democracy.” The government is accused of promoting controversial reforms in service to Netanyahu himself and his ongoing court case. The judicial system and Israel’s Supreme Court are left-leaning and increasingly activist, and they want to oust Netanyahu from politics. The majority of right-wing voters understand this. And with the incoming reforms, Netanyahu is driving the legal system into an impasse, while easing the pressure on his trial. At least that is how the case is presented in simple terms by the left.
According to opposition leader Yair Lapid, Justice Minister Levin timed the announcement of the government’s plan to influence a Supreme Court hearing on Thursday over whether or not Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, a twice-convicted criminal, could serve as a cabinet minister. The concept of moral turpitude would seemingly disqualify Deri from holding a senior post, but the coalition needs Shas to maintain its majority, and so the court must decide the matter.
“Like a gang of criminals, the day before the Supreme Court hearing on the Deri Law, the government put a loaded gun on the table,” howled Lapid. Last week, the new coalition passed an amendment to Israel’s foundational laws that would allow the Shas leader to serve as a senior government minister despite his conviction for tax fraud. Lapid vowed to fight what he called the “insanity” of Levin’s far-reaching plan to give the Knesset more control over Israel’s judiciary. Lapid said that any reforms enacted will be swiftly reversed when he returns to power.
In his speech, Levin outlined the measures designed to limit judges’ powers, including an overhaul of the composition of the Judiciary Committee and a law enabling the legislature to overturn Supreme Court rulings. He made it clear that the Israel Bar Association will lose its representation on the Judiciary Committee, which appoints judges to Israeli courts. Instead, the Knesset will now have two representatives on the committee. In other words, the representatives of the people should have more say in who is selected to sit in judgement over them. Previously that had not been the case and the choice of judges was almost entirely in the hands of the judiciary. Also to be passed is legislation that would allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court decisions by a majority of 61 votes in the 120-seat plenum.
Finally, Levin announced he would prohibit the court from using a “reasonableness” test to assess government decisions because there is no such thing as reasonableness. In Levin’s view, the Supreme Court should be primarily concerned with the settlement of disputes and criminal and civil appeals, and not with amending or altering the will of the people as expressed through their representatives in the Knesset. Levin also advocates transparency of court processes in public affairs petitions, including live broadcasts of Supreme Court hearings.
The reforms in the judicial system will keep us very busy in the near future. Right and left will argue about this like never before. Two different worldviews are colliding that will determine Israel’s character going forward. The right backs the reforms and sees them as a means of strengthening democracy, while the left fears the end of democracy as we know it.
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