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Netanyahu's judicial reform will be 'fatal blow' to Israel's democracy: top judge

Esther Hayut

Esther Hayut speaks during her inauguration ceremony at the Israeli presidential residence in Jerusalem on October 26, 2017. Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP via Getty Images

Chief Justice of Israel Esther Hayut warned on Thursday that the Netanyahu government’s plan to reform Israel’s judicial system aims to “crush” the independent judiciary and, if implemented, “will deal a fatal blow” to democracy. from the country.

Why it matters: Such a strong speech by Israel’s top judge about the government’s plans is unprecedented. It also echoes the concerns of many that heightened tensions over the plan could tear Israeli society apart.

Follow up fast: The government’s plan, if implemented, will significantly limit the Supreme Court’s ability to review laws and overturn them.

  • It includes passing a law that would allow the ruling coalition to overturn Supreme Court decisions by a simple majority of 61 votes in the 120-member Knesset.
  • It also aims to end the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn administrative government decisions on the basis of “reasonableness”, significantly diminishing judicial oversight.

The plan provides giving the government and the coalition in parliament absolute control over the appointment of judges.

  • In addition, the plan includes amending the law so that ministers can install political appointees as legal advisers in their ministries, something that today is not under their authority.

The impact: Experts say the plan’s implementation will eliminate the judiciary’s ability to carry out checks and balances against the executive and legislative branches, both controlled by the ruling coalition.

What they are saying: “The government’s plan is a relentless attack on the judicial system as if it were an enemy that must be defeated,” Hayut said in a speech broadcast live on Israeli television channels.

  • “Those who drafted the plan say cynically that it is meant to fix the judicial system. I say it is meant to crush it and deal a fatal blow to the independence of the judiciary and turn it into a silent power,” added Hayut.
  • She also stressed that the government’s plan will strip judges of their tools to protect human rights and the rule of law.
  • Hayut said that, contrary to what the government claims, in the past 30 years, the court struck down 21 laws – fewer than in many other Western democracies, including the US, Canada and Germany.
  • Hayut also said that the Israeli system for appointing judges is “balanced, professional and provides fair representation to all relevant stakeholders”.
  • “The implication of this bad plan will irreparably change Israel’s democratic character. This is not the way forward,” she said.

The other side: Minutes after Hayut finished his speech, Israeli Justice Minister Yariv Levin delivered a speech of his own, accusing Hayut of turning the Supreme Court into “a political party that sees itself above the Knesset and above the people.”

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

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

  • The opposition expects tens of thousands of people to take part in the main demonstration in Tel Aviv and more in separate demonstrations across the country.
  • National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir ordered police to crack down on protesters using water cannons and arresting those who tried to block the roads.
  • In a statement released after police commanders met with Ben-Gvir on Thursday, Israeli police said there were reports that some demonstrators were planning riots.
  • Protest organizers said this was an attempt by the police to delegitimize the protesters. Several opposition leaders sent letters to the chief of police, demanding that he ensure that police officers would not use violence against protesters.

Go deeper: US stresses need for “independent institutions” as Israel seeks to weaken judiciary

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