'A String of Poison Pills:' Ex-chief Justice Slams Israeli Minister's Plan for Judicial Overhaul

In a series of interviews, the former President of the Israeli high court warned of the consequences of the Justice Minister's plan presented last week, calling it a 'clear and tangible danger to democracy'

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Former President of the Israeli High Court, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, in 2019.
Former President of the Israeli High Court, Chief Justice Aharon Barak, in 2019.Credit: Olivia Fitusi

Commenting on the Justice Minister's planned reform of the Israeli judiciary system, former President of the Israeli Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, said on Saturday that the plan is "a clear and tangible danger to Israeli democracy."

In a series of television interviews broadcasted Saturday, Barak warned of the consequences of the plan presented last week by justice minister Yariv Levin, which includes, among other things, the legislation of the so-called "override clause" that would permit the Knesset to nullify High Court decisions by a slim majority of 61 votes in the 120-seat parliaments, and a legislation to tip the balance on the Judicial Appointments Committee in favor of politicians.

Speaking to Channel 12 News, Barak said: "If these plans will be realized, we'll have a formal democracy with no balances. We'll actually have only one branch of government, and that's not a democracy".

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Barak explained that "a court ruling that protects the citizens as citizens, that protects you and me as citizens, can be canceled by the same majority that passed it in the first place. What then would remain of human rights? We'll still have democracy, but it'll be a hollow democracy. It'll be a Polish, Hungarian or a Turkish democracy."

Barak added that "every single member of society will be harmed; one's rights, one's human dignity, one's right to life, body, property, freedom, movement – our daily life will be harmed."

According to Barak, there should be constitutional changes, but those must be done through dialogue and reflect a willingness to reach agreements.

"I'm not in favor of keeping the status quo. I'm in favor of changes. It's just that I aspire it to be through a dialogue. I want the widest possible agreement," he said.

Barak expressed hope that there are still "reasonable people" in the government institutions, that will come to the conclusion that the proposed legislation is not a string of pearls but indeed "a string of poison pills" that will make them agree to "slower doses of this poison." Barak confirmed that he would be happy to discuss the plan with minister Levin, the prime minister and his wife and "with whomever I'll have to."

Barak referred to his efforts last year to negotiate a plea bargain between Netanyahu and the State Attorney office in the cases in which the prime minister stands accused of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. "I did it for the sake of unifying the divisions in our nation," he said.

According to Barak, Prime Minister Netanyahu was willing to plead guilty to fraud and breach of trust, and agreed to let the court determine whether his actions were defamatory. "It would have been a major achievement if Netanyahu had declared: 'I admit of breaking your trust.'" Lamenting the failure of the talks, Barak said that if they had reached a plea bargain, Levin's reform would have been on the table.

Prime minister Netanyahu denied any involvement in the negotiations and a statement on his behalf was issued Saturday, saying that he "never agreed to admit to crimes of fraud and breach of trust, and if he had agreed to this, a plea bargain would have been signed a long time ago and the trial would have ended."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week in the Knesset.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Justice minister Levin commented on Barak's interviews, saying to Channel 12 News that he respects the former Supreme Court president, but "with a series of verdicts, he crushed entire swathes of people and destroyed democracy."

Regarding Barak's call to implement changes based on a wider consensus, Levin said that "serious and in-depth discussions will take place in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. That's the place where laws are discussed. I consider my reform as the rightest and best. All decisions will come out of the Knesset, and I hope that the final result will be as similar as possible to my proposal".

Levin added that "we'll move forward with the legislative procedures, and it'll be done with patience. There's no time frame, all discussions will be exhaustive… I’m not changing the rules of the democratic game. I’m restoring democracy and by that I'm also strengthening the Supreme Court."

"It turns out that Barak doesn't understand the meaning of democracy. My reform is not coming on tanks, it's coming on the voter's ballots, in a democratic election, with the support of vast parts of the public who haven't been heard in the judicial system for years. That's the reality and I propose to stop saying things that don't contribute to it."

Levin referred to the timing and circumstances in which his plan was presented and said that it "isn't related to any particular trial or a particular person. I'm not concerned with the Netanyahu trial. My reform is concerned with restoring democracy."

According to Levin, "When Netanyahu appointed me as justice minister, he knew what my positions were as they're well known, and I have been fighting for them for years. I think he heard a strong desire and demand from the public to bring about these changes, and I think he understood the direction I intended to go."

Commenting on the public storm that followed his presentation last week, Levin added that "I understand that people hear things and maybe get scared. We'll do it wisely."

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