Israel: Experts warn new govt could clip judicial independence

But beyond Netanyahu's case, the right-wing bloc he leads has made judicial reform a priority, seeking to redress what it condemns as the activist, leftist agenda of Israeli judges.

Published: 11th November 2022 08:04 PM  |   Last Updated: 11th November 2022 08:04 PM   |  A+A-

New Israel govt could clip judicial independence

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, (L), will be a key cog in the new Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu, (R). (File Photo | AP)

By AFP

JERUSALEM: Veteran Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who will receive an official mandate Sunday to form a government after a stunning election comeback, has not concealed his disdain for the country's courts.

Much of his criticism has centred on his ongoing trial over corruption charges, which he denies and has at times blamed on unnamed enemies within the criminal justice system.

But beyond Netanyahu's case, the right-wing bloc he leads has made judicial reform a priority, seeking to redress what it condemns as the activist, leftist agenda of Israeli judges.

Breaking years of political gridlock, Netanyahu -- 20 months after falling from power -- is poised to form a majority coalition that coalesces right-wing and far-right stripes thanks to a strong showing in the November 1 election.

Experts say legal reform is his top priority, warning the programme under consideration threatens judicial independence and could undermine Israeli governance.

What is being discussed?

Netanyahu's Likud party is expected to form a government with the extreme-right Religious Zionism alliance. Its leader, Bezalel Smotrich, said before the vote that action on his judicial reform proposals would be a pre-condition for Religious Zionism joining a coalition.

Asked if that condition remained in place as coalition talks with Likud were getting underway, Smotrich spokesman Eitan Fold told AFP that "negotiations have just started" and "would happen behind closed doors."

There are two key planks to Religious Zionism's reform plans, which experts say have support among some Likud members.

One is the so-called "override clause". If the Supreme Court declares a law illegal, the clause would empower parliament to overturn that decision through a simple majority vote. The second key element is changing the selection process for Supreme Court judges, who are currently nominated by a panel of judges, lawmakers and lawyers, overseen by the justice minister.

Religious Zionism has floated a more American-style nomination process, where politicians select and approve top judges. The reforms also call for abolishing a key charge against Netanyahu, breach of trust, a move seen as a gift to the veteran premier, while also broadening immunity for sitting lawmakers.

A Likud spokesman did not immediately respond to AFP when asked if the party backed Religious Zionism's reforms.

Why are experts worried?

Suzie Navot, a constitutional law professor at the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, told AFP the incoming coalition could trigger the "politicisation of the justice system."

"It is difficult for me to exaggerate the damage and danger of this proposal," she said. "The programme wants to remove all the tools for control of oversight of government. They really want absolute power," she said.

The "override cause," she explained, would effectively make it impossible for Israel's top court to strike down a law supported by 61 lawmakers. Likud, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox blocs -- Shas and United Torah Judaism -- will control 64 seats in the parliament to be sworn in next week.

What will happen?

Claude Klein, a prominent legal scholar and professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told AFP that the parties set to form the next government are "hostile" towards the Supreme Court and accuse it of having a "leftist" agenda.

He said that while Netanyahu may be interested in a broad overhaul, especially if it eases his personal legal troubles, he is likely to move cautiously. Netanyahu has served as prime minister for longer than anyone in Israel's history and, despite his fondness for rhetorical bluster, often avoids radical action.

On reforming judicial selection, "not all of Likud is in favour of this," Klein said. If the reforms are too extreme, "Netanyahu knows there will be huge opposition in Israel and his government will be criticised across the world -- that's why I am not sure he will go too far."



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