On the evening of Jan. 5, a politician with the dry manners of a suburban accountant but the inner fury of a steely zealot stepped up to a podium in Jerusalem and declared his intention to end Israeli democracy.
In a primetime press conference, Yariv Levin, the new justice minister in Benjamin Netanyahu’s two-week-old government, announced a series of far-reaching changes to the country’s judicial system that, if put in place, would hand unchecked power to the government and parliament.
Gone would be the Supreme Court’s ability to strike down legislation or government decisions deemed illegal — any such ruling could now be “overridden” with a simple parliamentary majority. Gone would be the consensual appointment process historically used to pick judges — the government would dominate the process, packing the courts with its own. No longer will professional legal advisers in the various ministries provide impartial and binding legal advice — they would all now be political appointees, almost guaranteeing their bosses a free hand.
Current and former judicial officials, legal experts and opposition leaders have all been clear: This is looming as the most severe constitutional crisis in the country’s history, a form of “regime change” via legislation.
“The closest parallel would be a revolution with tanks,” one former Supreme Court chief justice said last weekend, raising the specter of a “hollow democracy” like in Poland and Hungary.
Israel famously has no constitution, no upper house of parliament, no federal division of authorities, and no separate executive with veto power (say, a president).
Voters simply choose one national parliament, which then invests a government with executive power. The “unbearable lightness” of the Israeli system, Prof. Suzie Navot, a vice president at the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think thank, said to me.
In the wake of the general election last Nov. 1, Netanyahu and his Jewish nationalist and ultra-Orthodox allies dramatically returned to power on the back of a four-seat parliamentary majority, forming a government widely viewed as the most far right ever. Hence the genuine fear over the gutting of the Supreme Court and the elimination of any checks and balances and separation of powers.
As Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara, the country’s highest legal official, warned last month, Israel would “be left with the principle of majority rule alone. That and nothing more, democracy in name only but not in substance” if the above plans were implemented. [Continue reading…]