Jan 13, 2023 - World

Netanyahu judicial overhaul will be "fatal blow" to Israel's democracy, top judge says

Esther Hayut

Esther Hayut delivers a speech during her swearing-in ceremony at the Israeli presidential residence in Jerusalem on Oct. 26, 2017. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Supreme Court President Esther Hayut warned on Thursday that the Netanyahu government’s plan to overhaul Israel's judicial system is aimed at “crushing” the independent judiciary and, if implemented, will “deal a fatal blow” to the country's democracy.

Why it matters: Such a strongly-worded speech by Israel's top judge on government plans is unprecedented. It also echoes the worries of many that the heightened tensions over the plan could tear Israeli society apart.

Catch up quick: The government’s plan, if implemented, will significantly limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review laws and strike them down.

  • It includes passing a law that would allow the governing coalition to override Supreme Court rulings by a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.
  • It also seeks to end the Supreme Court's ability to revoke administrative decisions by the government on the grounds of "reasonability," significantly decreasing judicial oversight.

The plan envisions giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over appointing judges.

  • Additionally, the plan includes changing the law so that ministers would be able to install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that is not under their authority today.

The impact: Experts say the implementation of the plan 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.

What they're saying: “The government’s plan is a relentless attack against the judicial system as if it was an enemy that should be defeated," Hayut said in a speech that was broadcast live on Israeli television channels.

  • "Those who drafted the plan cynically say it is meant to fix the judicial system. I say it is meant to crush it and to deal a fatal blow to the independence of the judicial branch and turn it into a silent branch," Hayut added.
  • She also stressed that the government’s plan will take away judges' tools to protect human rights and the rule of law.
  • Hayut said that unlike what the government claims, in the last 30 years, the court struck down 21 laws — less than in many other western democracies including the U.S., Canada and Germany.
  • Hayut also said the Israeli system of appointing judges is “balanced, professional and gives fair representations to all relevant stakeholders." She added that the reason the government wants to implement the changes is “to politicize the courts."
  • “The implication of this bad plan will be changing the democratic character of Israel beyond repair. This is not the way to go," she said.

The other side: Minutes after Hayut finished her speech, Israel’s Justice Minister Yariv Levin gave a speech of his own, accusing Hayut of turning the Supreme Court into "a political party that sees itself as being above the Knesset and above the people."

  • He claimed Hayut had joined forces with the opposition and said her speech was “a call to set the streets on fire."
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t immediately comment on Hayut’s speech, but many of his coalition members joined Levin in attacking the top judge.

What to watch: Grassroots organizations and Israeli opposition parties have planned protests against the government's plan for Saturday.

  • The opposition hopes tens of thousands of people will participate in the main demonstration in Tel Aviv and more in separate demonstrations across the country.
  • National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered the police to crack down on the protesters by using water cannons and arresting those who try to block roads.
  • In a statement released after police commanders met with Ben-Gvir on Thursday, the Israeli police claimed there is intelligence that some protesters plan riots.
  • The protests' organizers said this was an attempt by the police to delegitimize the demonstrators. Several opposition leaders sent letters to the chief of police, demanding that he ensures police officers don’t use violence against the protesters.

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