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Israel's new government unveils plan to weaken Supreme Court

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister on Wednesday unveiled the new government’s long-promised overhaul of the judicial system that aims to weaken the country's Supreme Court.
Israel's Speaker of the Knesset, Yariv Levin, center, speaks to lawmakers in Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s justice minister on Wednesday unveiled the new government’s long-promised overhaul of the judicial system that aims to weaken the country's Supreme Court.

Critics accused the government of declaring war against the legal system, saying the plan will upend Israel's system of checks and balances and undermine its democratic institutions by giving absolute power to the most right-wing coalition in the country's history.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a confidant of Netanyahu's and longtime critic of the Supreme Court, presented his plan a day before the justices are to debate a controversial new law passed by the government allowing a politician convicted of tax offenses to serve as a Cabinet minister.

“The time has come to act,” he said.

The proposals call for a series of sweeping changes aimed at curbing the powers of the judiciary, including by allowing lawmakers to pass laws that the high court has struck down and effectively deemed unconstitutional.

Levin laid out a law that would empower the country’s 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, to override Supreme Court decisions with a simple majority of 61 votes. Levin also proposed that politicians play a greater role in the appointment of Supreme Court judges and that ministers appoint their own legal advisers, instead of using independent professionals.

Levin argued that the public's faith in the judicial system has plummeted to a historic low, and said he plans to restore power to elected officials that now lies in the hands of overly interventionist judges.

“We go to the polls and vote, choose, but time after time, people who we didn’t elect decide for us,” he said. “That’s not democracy.”

The planned overhaul has already drawn fierce criticism from Israel’s attorney general and the Israeli opposition, though it is unclear whether they will be able to prevent the far-right government from racing forward.

Yair Lapid, former Prime Minister and head of the opposition, said he will fight the changes “in every possible way” and vowed to cancel them if he returns to power. “Those who carry out a unilateral coup in Israel need to know that we are not obligated to it in any way whatsoever,” he said.

If Levin’s proposed “override” law is passed, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox and ultranationalist allies have said they hope to scrap Supreme Court rulings outlawing Israeli outposts on private Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. They would also seek to allow for the protracted detention of African asylum-seekers and make official the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox from the country’s mandatory military service.

In Israel, Supreme Court judges are appointed and dismissed by a committee made up of professionals, lawmakers and some justices. Levin wants to give lawmakers a majority in the committee, with most coming from the right-wing and religiously conservative ruling coalition.

“It will be a hollow democracy,” said Amir Fuchs, senior researcher at Jerusalem’s Israel Democracy Institute think tank. “When the government has ultimate power, it will use this power not only for issues of LGBTQ rights and asylum-seekers but elections and free speech and anything it wants.”

Recent opinion polls by the Israel Democracy Institute found a majority of respondents believe the Supreme Court should have the power to strike down laws that conflict with Israel’s Basic Laws, which serve as a sort of constitution.

In a speech Wednesday ahead of Levin's announcement, Netanyahu appeared to back his justice minister by vowing to “implement reforms that will ensure the proper balance between the three branches of government.”

Since being indicted on corruption charges, Netanyahu has campaigned against the justice system. He denies all charges, saying he is the victim of a witch hunt orchestrated by a hostile media, police and prosecutors. Levin said his plan is “not connected in any way” to Netanyahu's trial.

Just hours before Levin's speech, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, a prime target of the new government, declared her opposition to the ministerial appointment of one of Netanyahu's key coalition partners who has been convicted of tax offenses. On Thursday, the Supreme Court is expected to hear petitions against Aryeh Deri serving as minister.

As part of negotiations to form the current government, Israel's parliament last month changed a law to allow someone convicted on probation to serve as a Cabinet minister. That paved the way for Deri to become health and interior minister, as well as finance minister in a rotation agreement after two years. Deri was convicted of tax fraud and given a suspended sentence last year.

Good governance groups saw the legal maneuver as a green light for corruption by a government cavalierly changing laws for political expediency.

Baharav-Miara made her standing clear in a note to the Supreme Court. She said the appointment “radically deviates from the sphere of reasonability.” She has said she will not be defending the state in court against the appeals, because of her opposition.

Levin's proposed changes also include eliminating the test of “reasonability” when reviewing government decisions.

Baharav-Miara was appointed by the previous government, which vehemently opposes Netanyahu's rule. Netanyahu's allies have floated the idea of splitting up the post of attorney general into three roles including two that would be political appointments. That would water down the current attorney-general's authority while opening the door for Netanyahu to install someone favorable to throwing out the charges against him.

Isabel Debre And Josef Federman, The Associated Press