Israeli government plan to limit judicial powers sharply criticized

Benjamin Netanyahu attends a toast after the new government was sworn in at the parliament on 29 December (Amir Cohen - AFP)

Ben Lynfield

The Guardian  /  January 5, 2023

Grave concerns over Netanyahu coalition’s plan to invalidate supreme court decisions with simple majority.

Civil liberties and human rights advocates have expressed grave concerns about a plan by Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right Israeli government to limit the power of the judiciary, saying it will encourage authoritarianism and put minority rights in imminent danger.

“If they succeed, it’s a different system, a different Israel,” said Dan Meridor, a former justice minister, stressing that in the absence of a constitution, the country’s courts serve to protect people from “being at the mercy of the governing majority”.

Under the plan, announced late on Wednesday by the current justice minister Yariv Levin, parliament would have the power to invalidate supreme court decisions with a majority vote of its 120 members. In effect this would grant Netanyahu, who commands a 64-seat coalition including ultra-Orthodox and anti-Palestinian legislators, an easy way of overriding the court and, critics warn, pushing through radical legislation.

Liberal Jewish and Palestinian leaders have predicted that new laws could target minorities and the right to protest while facilitating annexation in the occupied West Bank.

The plan, which has yet to be written into law, also increases the influence of politicians and the government in selecting the court’s members, and enables cabinet members to appoint their own legal advisers in place of the civil service professionals who currently can thwart initiatives deemed problematic.

Levin said the changes were necessary because the judiciary was overly active, “interfering” in government decision-making and Knesset legislation, bringing public trust to an all-time low, crippling the government’s ability to govern and inflicting a major blow to democracy. “We go the ballot box and vote but time after time people we didn’t elect make the decisions for us,” he said.

Israelis opposed to the changes fear for the country’s democratic health, defending the court as a bulwark for minority rights.

“If these steps are carried out we will have in Israel a change of governance from a partial democracy to outright authoritarian rule,” warned the journalist Gidi Weitz in Haaretz.

Amnon Lord, a columnist for the rightwing Israel Hayom newspaper, disputed this view, saying Levin was only redressing judicial activism that had established a “parallel government” in which the supreme court had taken on powers in military, economic and other issues.

Levin denied that his plan was related in any way to deliberations at the supreme court on the legality of a new law that would enable Netanyahu’s key coalition partner, Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, to serve as finance minister despite being convicted for tax evasion.

Critics have also stressed that the Levin plan could lead to the overturning of corruption proceedings against Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing.

Noa Sattath, director-general of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said she considered each step in the plan “devastating”. Sattath said that by removing judicial oversight the plan could lead to curtailment of freedom to protest, harm the political representation of Israel’s Palestinian minority, heighten discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, lead to indefinite detention of asylum seekers and facilitate the permanent annexation of the occupied West Bank.

“This is definitely an attempt to transform the democratic sphere in Israel and shrink it dramatically. Israeli democracy is weak in that there are no rights for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian Territories and our democratic culture is very weak. This dramatically reduces that further.”

Yousef Jabareen, who teaches human rights law at Haifa University and is a former legislator for the predominantly Palestinian Hadash party, said that while Palestinian Israelis have been disappointed by the supreme court, which itself leans hard right, “we still believe it is important to have judicial review especially with this extreme-right government”.

He predicted the plan would “give the government a free hand for deepening and widening discrimination against the Arab [Palestinian] community”, including making investments whose sole aim is to settle Jews in regions of the country heavily populated by Palestinians. “Levin’s plan is a serious threat, it’s not just a declaration,” Jabareen said.

The US ambassador, Tom Nides, said that keeping the countries’ “shared values” in mind, Washington would not rush to judgment. “This democracy will withstand a lot and that’s why it’s so vibrant,” he told Army Radio. “I’m not in a position to tell Israel what to do. But I am certainly willing to express my concerns and anxiety from where we stand.”