Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and lawmakers in the coalition and opposition panned a compendium of bills on Sunday meant to reform the judiciary, saying that the legislation proposed by coalition chairman Yariv Levin (Likud Beytenu) and Bayit Yehudi faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked will be damaging to democracy.
“I will fight every attempt to harm the High Court and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Livni said. “These dangerous proposals will weaken the High Court and harm separation of powers by making it subordinate to politics and establishing religious faith and rabbis as more important than democracy. I vehemently oppose this.”
The ideas behind the legislation meant to curb judicial activism aren’t new – in fact, Levin proposed related bills in the previous Knesset – but the cooperation between the coalition chairman and Shaked, with the backing of Bayit Yehudi leader Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, could push them forward.
“This new cooperation is an additional and important step in the continued battle I am leading to change the face of the judiciary in order to bring it to a more Jewish and Zionist path,” Levin said. “These laws that we are promoting are meant to bring back the balance between the branches of government and ensure a more varied judicial system that will not invade areas under the government and the Knesset’s authority.”
One bill calls for the Knesset to vote for the Supreme Court president and his or her deputy. Another part of the proposal would put only one High Court justice on the committee to appoint judges, as opposed to the three that are currently on the panel. In addition, one of the Bar Association representatives would be replaced with a law professor selected by the prime minister.
According to both bills’ explanatory portions, the legislation balances out the representation of the three branches of government on the panel and allow for judges with a greater variety of opinions be appointed to the Supreme Court and its presidency.
Shaked submitted additional legislation, which would limit the courts’ ability to cancel laws passed by the Knesset. Her bill would add an article – that is already part of Basic Law: Freedom of Occupation and is based on part of the Canadian constitution – to Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, allowing 61 MKs to reestablish a law rejected by the Supreme Court. That law will have to be renewed by the Knesset every four years.
Levin does not support the change to Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, because he opposes the law and does not want to recognize it.
“The Knesset, as the sovereign in a democracy, has the right to the last word on matters of principle and values,” Shaked explained. “In the last 20 years there was a ‘constitutional revolution’ that weakened the executive and legislative branches and made the judicial branch superior, and we want to fix that.”
Livni, however, accused the MKs of trying to politicize the judiciary.
“I will fight for the separation of branches, for those who represent justice and so politicians will not be able to threaten judges,” the justice minister said. “Israel is a Jewish and democratic state, and I plan to anchor the values of Israel with a balance between Jewish and democratic, without letting extremists put one before the other. That is Zionism and the Independence Scroll,” she added, in reference to Israel’s founding document.
Yesh Atid ministers also expressed concern about the proposal.
Education Minister Shai Piron said his party must “rise up against such irresponsible actions” and that “a divided society like Israel’s with many different communities must leave the High Court out of [political] debate, so that one institution can help guide the problematic ship.”
Welfare Minister Meir Cohen said “no one should touch the High Court.”
“I think this has become a regular routine, where every time we don’t have a lot to talk about, the High Court becomes a target,” Cohen quipped.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich (Labor) vowed that “the opposition will not allow the Levin- Shaked bills to pass, because they are a flagrant and violent attempt to undermine the basis of rule of law in Israel.”
“Israelis want democracy and won’t allow it to be trampled by a group of undemocratic MKs,” she said. “The whole purpose of these laws is to instill fear in the High Court, make the justices hesitant in their rulings and make them dependent on politicians for promotions. Once again, the Right wing in the coalition forgets that democracy doesn’t mean rule of the majority, but also respecting the rights of the minority.”
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On said Bennett and Levin’s bills are a “targeted assassination” of Israeli democracy.
“The extreme Right wants to politicize the courts, and instead of strengthening human rights, they want to destroy the only institution that defends them, allowing for a total dictatorship of the majority,” Gal-On stated.
Levin responded to the allegations, saying that Livni’s job is to serve the public, not a small group of judges, and that her speedy response and fluency in the bills’ details show the “hysteria that struck the minority that wants to rule us via the courts system.”
“The battle I led almost alone has turned into a broadly-supported public battle, and I am determined to ensure that the rights and desires of the majority will be expressed through extensive legislation that will make the courts Jewish, Zionist and more democratic,” he said.
Shaked denied that the bills cause any harm to the High Court’s standing.
“The courts are no less important to me than they are to Piron,” she retorted. “Judicial activism in its current form and power hurt the balance between the branches of government and their functions. We need an open public discourse on this matter.”
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