Is Yariv Levin an architect of Israel democracy? - opinion

For decades, he has championed the cause of curbing the unchecked power of the judicial system, thereby reinforcing the separation of powers in Israel.

 JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
JUSTICE MINISTER Yariv Levin speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the voting in the Knesset plenum on Monday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On Monday, an amendment to Basic Law: the Judiciary successfully passed both the second and third readings in the Knesset plenum. This achievement is a significant and essential triumph for Israeli democracy, carrying profound implications for several key reasons.

Firstly, the proposal addresses a longstanding historical injustice that has persisted in the country since the 1980s. Prior to this period, the legal system did not employ or interpret the reasonableness standard at all. It was only when the former Supreme Court chief justice, Aharon Barak, introduced his interpretation that it began to gain traction. 

Subsequently, a group of his followers continued to apply this interpretation without any formal legal approval, leading to the establishment of this custom.

The court’s distorted interpretation of the reasonableness standard, in contrast to its essence in British law, and its frequent utilization, granted the court the power to invalidate and obstruct decisions made by the elected echelon through ambiguous and abstract means. A mere allegation of something being “unreasonable” became sufficient to undermine the policies promoted by government ministers.

By reducing the reasonableness standard through this amendment, Israeli democracy reclaims an essential aspect of fairness and accountability. It ensures that decisions made by elected representatives are not arbitrarily obstructed, and provides a clearer framework for legal interpretations. This amendment represents a crucial step toward strengthening the principles of democracy and justice within the Israeli legal system.

Given that judges are mere mortals, there is no justification for assuming that they possess a superior understanding of what constitutes a “reasonable” or “unreasonable” decision. Instead, the determination of reasonableness should rely on a broad consensus reached by elected politicians who carry the burden of responsibility along with their powers. These politicians have been chosen by the people and entrusted with the mandate to represent and advance the citizens’ interests, in accordance with the country’s laws.

Reasonableness is not an inherently judicial matter; rather, it is a subjective and social concept. Therefore, the rightful authority to decide what is reasonable and what is not lies solely with the people, expressed through their elected representatives in the legislative branch and in the government.

After all, why should a judge be presumed to have a better grasp of reasonableness than a politician (or the citizens who elected that politician)? In a democratic society, reasonability should be determined exclusively by the citizens, who hold the power of influence through both the ballot box (the carrot) and the ability to hold elected officials accountable for decisions they perceive as unreasonable (the stick).

APART FROM the reduction of the reasonableness standard, the approval of the law has effectively averted a perilous and unprecedented scenario where society would capitulate to violence, anarchy, and the influence of a radical and relentless minority. 

This minority has been causing disruptions in public order, assaulting law enforcement officers, vandalizing public property, and posing threats to elected officials. Furthermore, they resorted to storming and harassing the symbol of democracy – the Knesset. Adding to the alarming situation were coercive tactics, attempting to shut down and destroy the economy, and even jeopardizing patient treatments by the Israel Medical Association.

Had society surrendered to these violent rioters, it would have essentially meant the de facto annulment of Israel’s elections, leading to the paralysis of the Knesset and the government and ultimately handing power to anti-democratic forces. 

However, the approval of the law, despite the attempts at intimidation and violence by certain protest leaders, has demonstrated the Knesset’s commitment to strengthening its position and upholding the foundations of democracy. By doing so, it has safeguarded the integrity of the democratic system in Israel.

Most notably, one individual emerged as the key beneficiary of this reform – Justice Minister Yariv Levin, whose face has become the symbol of this endeavor. Levin can rightfully be regarded as the mastermind behind the restoration of Israeli democracy. 

For decades, he has championed the cause of curbing the unchecked power of the judicial system, thereby reinforcing the separation of powers in Israel and steering the country back to the period before the unauthorized and undemocratic judicial revolution. 

Throughout all the governments in which he served since 2009, Levin made numerous efforts to persuade Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to curtail the powers of the judicial system. Unfortunately, these attempts were unsuccessful. Nevertheless, he displayed unwavering determination, remained steadfast in his mission, and continued to advocate for crucial reforms to strengthen Israeli democracy, persistently pursuing this objective time and time again.

Unwavering support through difficult times

Levin’s immense popularity within the Likud party, second only to Netanyahu’s, is a testament to his unwavering support. This was evident in the last preliminary elections for the Likud list, where he secured the top spot (after Netanyahu). Levin genuinely reflects the views of Likud voters and a significant portion of the national camp voters in an honest, dependable, and authentic manner.

His tenacious and, some might say, heroic, efforts to bolster democracy in Israel have undoubtedly earned him the admiration and support of right-wing voters. While many in the Likud may have chosen to cater to the elite, media, and left-leaning cultural and academic circles, Levin remained steadfast, staying loyal to Likud voters and the right-wing camp. 

Levin’s fight persisted until the very last moment, as dramatic scenes unfolded during the crucial vote. Within the Likud, various parties attempted to sway Netanyahu to withdraw and surrender. The intense moment captured Levin on one side of the prime minister, with Defense Minister Yoav Galant on the other, each making their own efforts to influence the decision. This memorable and dramatic episode will be etched in the annals of Israeli politics.

Beyond the proposal to reduce the reasonableness standard, Levin understood the significance of not yielding at this critical juncture. A retreat would have amounted to a victory for the anti-democratic and anarchist factions, which threatened to dismantle the Israeli government and Knesset, rendering them mere rubber stamps of the legal system and the powerful elites in the country.

However, Levin’s fight did not end there. Reducing the reasonableness standard was just one step in his comprehensive plan to fortify democracy and uphold the will of the public. There are still further challenges ahead, including changes to the judicial selection committee, diminishing the paralyzing influence of legal advisers in ministerial offices, and addressing the issue of repealing laws by the High Court of Justice.

Already recognized as the most influential and prominent elected member of the Likud party and the conservatives, Levin is well-poised to be a leading candidate for the prime minister in the post-Netanyahu era, once the legislation to strengthen democracy is successfully enacted.

The writer is a researcher and Israeli publicist. He holds a PhD in political studies.