U.S. stresses need for "independent institutions" as Israel seeks to weaken judiciary
A State Department official stressed the importance of Israel's "independent institutions" for its "thriving democracy" after the country's new government revealed a plan to pass laws that would weaken the Supreme Court.
Why it matters: The Biden administration is treating the issue with utmost sensitivity because of its domestic political aspects. But the U.S. also understands the implementation of the plan could have an impact on Israel’s democracy and, as a result, on the two country's bilateral relationship, U.S. officials say.
Driving the news: Speaking during a prime-time evening press conference this week, Israel's Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented the government's plan for what he called "judicial reform."
- The plan includes passing a law that will allow the governing coalition to override Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.
- According to Levin’s plan, only a special chamber of all 15 Supreme Court judges will be able to review laws. It will need at least 12 judges to rule against a law in order to strike it down.
- Levin’s plan includes ending the Supreme Court's ability to revoke administrative decisions by the government on the grounds of "reasonability." This will significantly decrease judicial oversight of the government’s actions.
The coalition will also seek to change the law that defines the system of appointing judges by giving the government and the coalition in parliament a majority on the appointment committee, according to Levin's plan.
- Additionally, the plan includes changing the law so that ministers will be able to install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that is not under their authority today.
State of play: Senior Israeli legal experts and former and current Supreme Court judges see the plan as a way for the government to significantly weaken the country's highest court by harming its independence and effectively rendering it irrelevant.
- Experts say the implementation of the plan will end the separation between the different branches of power and will eliminate the ability of the judicial branch to do the checks and balances against the executive and legislative branches, which are both controlled by the governing coalition.
- On Friday, former Supreme Court chief justice Aaron Barak, Israel’s most well-known and internationally respected jurist, told Israeli media that the government plan is similar to a "military coup with tanks."
- Many on the Israeli ultra-conservative right see Barak as the architect of the “constitutional revolution,” which gave more weight to human rights considerations in court rulings. Levin is the most adamant arch-rival of Barak’s legacy in the Israeli political system and said publicly he wants to roll it back.
- Barak said Levin’s plan is a summary of all the bad ideas that were raised over the years and stressed that if implemented, it will “suffocate Israel’s democracy."
What they're saying: “Israel’s independent institutions are crucial to upholding the country’s thriving democracy, and our shared democratic values are at the heart of our bilateral relationship," a State Department spokesperson told Axios when asked about the new Israeli government’s plan.
- The plans to weaken the judicial system and the concerns about steps that will harm Israel’s democracy were among the issues discussed during internal meetings at the White House and State Department on drafting the policy towards the new Israeli government, U.S. officials said.
The big picture: Levin's plan was presented as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is standing trial for fraud, breach of trust and bribery. He denies any wrongdoing.
- The Israeli opposition warns that Netanyahu is pushing the new plan as part of his effort to stop the trial.
- As part of the plan, the government is considering dividing the work of the attorney general into two jobs: government legal adviser and chief prosecutor. That would allow the government to appoint a new chief prosecutor who could end Netanyahu's trial.
Between the lines: The weakening of the Israeli Supreme Court will have consequences for the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
- The Israeli Supreme Court has been the only institution that Palestinians in the West Bank can go to defend their rights, mainly regarding land disputes with Israeli settlers.