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Israel's judicial reforms will 'destroy' legal independence say top officials

Israel's legal profession is in open revolt against the government's proposed reforms to the country's justice system
Lawyers hold signs with writing in Hebrew reading "the supreme court protects us all" during a demonstration by lawyers against the Israeli government's controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Tel Aviv District Court of Justice on 12 January 2023 (AFP)
Lawyers hold signs written in Hebrew reading "The Supreme Court protects us all" during a demonstration by lawyers outside the Tel Aviv District Court of Justice on 12 January 2023 (AFP)

Almost all the prosecutors and state attorneys that have served in Israel in the last half century jointly warned on Thursday that planned reforms to the country's justice system would "destroy" judicial independence.

"We call on the government to withdraw the proposed plan and prevent the serious harm to the justice system and the rule of law," they said in the unprecedented letter, referring to a new plan that would expand the government's power to appoint judges and impede the Supreme Court's power to restrain parliament.

Currently, the governing coalition has three seats in the nine-member committee tasked with appointing judges. The new plan, announced earlier this month, will grant them five, effectively giving the government a clear majority.

The retired officials said that proposed changes to the country's Supreme Court, often the last chance for Israelis and sometimes Palestinians seeking to challenge objectionable policies, would result in a "pseudo-political body that would be suspected of bending the law in favour of the government".

"We were shocked to hear the plan of Justice Minister Yariv Levin for changes in the judicial system. We are convinced that this plan does not herald the improvement of the system but threatens to destroy it," the statement added.

'We are convinced that this plan does not herald the improvement of the system but threatens to destroy it'

- Open Letter

Currently, the Supreme Court can disqualify government legislation if it contradicts Israel's 13 basic laws, particularly the Human Dignity and Liberty Basic Law. Israel's basic laws are intended to be part of the future constitution, which does not exist yet.

Levin's plan, however, proposes an "override clause", which will allow parliament members to reenact a law disqualified by the Supreme Court with a simple majority of 61 MPs (out of 120).

The plan also wants to allow ministers to appoint their own legal advisers rather than appointees who report to the attorney general.

Levin will now have to turn the "reform" plan into legislation and present it to a parliamentary vote, expected later this month.

The letter went on to add: "We call on the government to withdraw the published plan, and prevent the serious damage to the judicial system and the rule of law, to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in light of the values ​​expressed in the Declaration of Independence."

Evading justice 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is backing the changes, would also personally benefit from the weakening of the courts. 

Netanyahu is on trial for corruption, and the law could enable him to evade conviction or make his case disappear. Since being indicted in 2019, Netanyahu has railed publicly against the justice system, calling it biased against him.

If the plan is implemented in its current form, it is widely believed Israel will cease to have an independent judiciary, and change from a government that must justify its actions to a regime that can act arbitrarily.

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The plan has resulted in a fierce backlash in the country. 

Yossi Beilin, former minister of justice and head of the Meretz party, is particularly concerned about the "override clause" in the proposal. 

Speaking to Middle East Eye earlier this month on the proposed changes, Beilin said, "Israel will be left with just a facade of democracy."

Beilin warns that it will be difficult to roll back the reforms if they go ahead, as it will be convenient for all future governments to have this power.  

"My political life would have been much easier if I could appoint my ministries' loyal legal advisers in political positions as suggested now by Levin, instead of the professional positions accountable to the attorney general I had to deal with," Beilin said.

Levin, the current justice minister, has criticised the Supreme Court judges' power over government and parliamentary decisions despite not being elected by the public.

"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," he said.

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