SecondInyamin Netanyahu’s The latest government has rushed to get to work. Much attention has been paid to far-right and extreme religious parties in his coalition, which have won control of major ministries. But the appointment of Yariv Levin, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, as justice minister could have the most profound impact on Israeli democracy.
Mr Levin is determined to limit the power of the country’s powerful independent Supreme Court. The new minister wants to introduce a “overturn clause” that would allow a simple majority in the Knesset to pass laws deemed unconstitutional by the courts. Under his plan, courts would no longer be able to annul government decisions on the grounds of “reasonableness”. Politicians appoint judges. The government’s legal advisers, currently an independent body, will be replaced by political appointees. Things were made worse when the Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 18 to block the appointment of a senior minister in the new government after he was convicted of tax fraud.
Israel’s lack of a formal constitution and unicameral proportional representation electoral system, which has often led to alliances with many small but politically powerful special interest parties, has meant its supreme court has long been highly intrusive. Israeli politicians of all stripes resent the court’s influence. David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister and member of the centre-left Labor Party, was absent from the Supreme Court hearing. The new Netanyahu government is largely composed of politicians who oppose interference by unelected judges on principle. They insist that what they are upholding is a real democracy.
Israeli judges disagree. In a rare public criticism of government policy on January 12, Supreme Court president Esther Hayut called Mr Levin’s plan a “fatal wound to the independence of the judiciary”. Ms Hayut said if it passed it would “change the country’s democratic identity beyond recognition”.
Suzie Navot, a constitutional lawyer and vice-president of the Israel Institute for Democracy think tank, said the changes meant removing any checks on government power. The plan has reinvigorated the fractured centre-left opposition. On January 14, some 80,000 protesters gathered in Tel Aviv and other cities against the government’s plans.
Mr Netanyahu is not deterred. The next day, he described the November election as “the mother of all protests” and claimed that millions of people had voted to reform the legal system. “We haven’t even touched the Supreme Court’s power of administrative review,” insisted Sim Charosman, chairman of the Knesset’s law committee and a member of the far-right group Religion Zionist. He scoffed at calls that the changes would make Israel less democratic. He claimed that no other court in the world uses a similar “reasonableness” test, or scrutinizes his appointments in the way Israeli courts do.
In the past, the independence of Israel’s legal system has enabled it to hold governments and state leaders accountable. A former prime minister has been convicted of corruption. A president is in prison for sexual assault. Netanyahu himself faces bribery and fraud charges. The proposed changes won’t directly affect his case, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that he’s back in the office to settle accounts with the judge. Mr Netanyahu has billed himself as a defender of the independence of the Supreme Court. Whether he actually changed his mind, or out of political expediency, the position no longer suited him. ■