Making good on campaign vow, Netanyahu government introduces bill to diminish Israel’s top court


(JTA) — Israel’s new government is wasting little time before following through on a central promise made by its leading politicians: to reshape the country’s judiciary and give lawmakers more power over it.

Yariv Levin, the newly appointed justice minister, on Wednesday announced planned legislation that would severely limit the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to review and overturn laws and pledged to increase governmental control over the appointment of judges. Under his proposal, a majority of 61 Knesset members could override Supreme Court rulings, effectively ensuring that any governing coalition could override rulings it does not like.

Those moves are seen as overdue by leaders of the country’s right-wing parties, who think the judiciary has veered too far to the left. In recent years, the Supreme Court has banned Israeli construction on private Palestinian lands in the West Bank, forced the acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions and guaranteed some rights to gay couples — all of which the new government opposes.

The proposal’s critics, who include the political opposition as well as an array of liberal and nonpartisan groups in Israel and the Diaspora, say the moves would shatter Israel’s system of checks and balance and cut away at the country’s credential as the only authentic democracy in the Middle East.

“A country that removes basic democratic checks and balances and eviscerates the independence of the judiciary can no longer seriously be referred to as a full democracy,” the CEO of the New Israel Fund, Daniel Sokatch, said in a statement. He added, “The international community, including the United States government, should see this move for what it is — a lurch towards autocracy.”

“It is excruciating to see this government directly undermine the core values of democracy and religious freedom that we value so deeply,” said a statement by the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical group.

A majority of Israelis believe that the Supreme Court should retain the right to strike down Knesset laws that conflict with the country’s “basic laws,” which are widely considered tantamount to a constitution, a poll conducted last month by the Israel Democracy Institute found. But the respondents were deeply divided by their religious orientation; 15% of haredi Orthodox Jews said the court should retain that right, while 76% of secular Israelis said so.

Yedidya Stern, the head of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Jerusalem, said in a statement that the question of how the judiciary should be structured should not be subject to normal political decision making.

“This is a question that deserves to be discussed in a substantive manner, with a careful examination of the benefits and risks to the public relating to each of the proposals on their own merits,” said Stern, whose group does not typically criticize Israeli government leaders. “A process of politicization of the judicial system imperils its independence and must be opposed.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would support the legislation; he has campaigned against the judiciary since facing corruption charges, for which a trial is ongoing. The proposed changes come as the high court justices are set to debate a new law, opposed by the country’s attorney general, that allows people convicted of tax crimes to serve in the Cabinet. The law is designed to ensure a ministerial role for Aryeh Deri, who is currently serving a suspended sentence for tax fraud. Deri criticized Levin for unveiling the judicial reform proposal so close to his hearing.