The furious response from the opposition in the Knesset was quick in coming following the presentation Wednesday of a plan from Israel's justice minister that would curb the power of the country's judiciary. Opposition leader Yair Lapid, who was prime minister until the new government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu took office last week, called the plan "a loaded gun on the table."
Justice Minister Yariv Levin presented his plan, which the new government is calling "a reform of governance," a day before Israel's High Court of Justice is due to hear legal challenges to the appointment of Shas party leader, Arye Dery, as interior minister and health minister.
Dery's appointment is the subject of legal dispute because, in addition to a criminal conviction two decades ago for which he served prison time, last year he received a suspended sentence following a plea agreement on tax evasion charges. The new government has amended the law to make it clear that only actual prison time within the past seven years would be grounds to disqualify a nomination to the cabinet.
The plan presented by Levin would curb the powers of the Supreme Court, by permitting the legislature to override its rulings and by boosting the Knesset's representation on the committee that selects judges.
In a tweet after Levin, who is from Netanyahu's Likud party, presented the plan, Lapid wrote: "Like a gang of criminals, the day before the High Court hearing on the Dery law, the government placed a loaded gun on the table. What Yariv Levin presented today is not legal reform, but rather a threatening letter. They are threatening to destroy the entire constitutional structure of Israel."
Earlier in the day, Lapid said, "We will not only fight in every possible way against each and every one of the measures Levin will be announcing this evening. I am saying in advance that we will reverse them the moment we return to power. Anyone who carries out a unilateral revolution against the system of government in Israel should know that we are in no way committed to it.”
At his news conference, Levin invoked a statement by the founder of Likud, the late Prime Minister Menachem Begin. But Gideon Sa'ar, who was previously a member of Likud and was justice minister until last month, blasted Levin's plan, calling it a death sentence for Menachem Begin's political philosophy.
"During his speech tonight, Minister Levin mentioned Menachem Begin, the legendary first leader of the Likud party. But his words were no less than an execution of Begin's democratic and governmental doctrine," Sa'ar said. "There's no doubt that Begin would have rejected each one of the steps in the plan for regime change in Israel. The real students [of Begin] must fight this. And that's what I will do."
The leader of the opposition National Unity party, Benny Gantz, told Channel 13 news on Wednesday that Levin's plan constitutes "a major danger to the private citizen." He warned that "what was presented as a legal reform [highlighting] stronger governance is, as a practical matter, a change of government in Israel."
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"We don't have a balanced system. We don't have a constitution to protect us. We don't have two houses [of parliament]," Gantz said. "We have a government that with its majority controls the Knesset, and now together they will control the court."
In his own speech, Levin said: "The constitutional revolution and the growing intervention of the judicial system in cabinet decisions and Knesset legislation have dragged the trust in the judiciary down to a dangerous low, leading to a loss of governance and severe damage to democracy. We go to the polls [and vote], but time after time, people whom we have not elected decide for us," Levin said.
At a public appearance on Wednesday prior to Levin's presentation, Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke of the changes that his new government intends to make in a variety of fields, and in an apparent reference to Levin's plan, Netanyahu said, "We will enact reforms that will ensure the correct balance among the three branches of government."
A diplomatic source warned that the justice minister's plan could harm the Israeli judiciary's standing in the international community. "For years, Israel has been helped by the independent and professional image of the Supreme Court to make it clear to the international community that [the court] is monitoring and overseeing [Israel's] conduct in the territories. The politicization on the appointment of judges is liable to make it difficult to use the High Court of Justice as a defense … in international courts."
The International Criminal Court in The Hague is mandated to act in cases where crimes go unpunished by the country where the alleged perpetrators live. The international community’s assumption is that a properly governed country is capable of bringing to justice its citizens if they violate the law and therefore intervention by the ICC isn’t necessary.
With reporting by Yaniv Kubovich.