Netanyahu government unveils plan to rein in Israel's top court

Israeli cabinet meeting in Jerusalem
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, 3 January 2023. Atef Safadi/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM, Jan 4 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new hard-right Israeli government unveiled a plan on Wednesday that would allow parliament to overturn some Supreme Court rulings and grant the government more say in nominations to the bench.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin's announcement had been expected and appeared likely to raise concerns at home and abroad for Israel's democratic health while sharpening feuding with the centre-left opposition in the Knesset.

“These reforms will strengthen the judicial system and restore public faith in it,” Levin said in a televised statement. “People we did not vote for decide for us,” he said, referring to the court. “That’s not democracy.”

Levin said the proposed measures would change the way judges are appointed by giving the Knesset more oversight and the government more power on the committee which selects them.

It would also reduce the power of the Supreme Court to strike down Knesset laws by giving the 120-member parliament the power to override some of its rulings by a 61-seat majority, unless those rulings are unanimous.

One of the principles by which the court has on occasion struck down executive practices, "reasonability," would be scrapped under the proposal.

Members of Netanyahu's religious-nationalist coalition, which took office last week, have long accused the court of overreach and the bench of being unrepresentative of the public. Israelis opposed to the measures defend the court as a bulwark for minority rights and a separation of synagogue and state.

"The whole idea behind everything here is to give the politicians and the majority of the coalition ultimate power, that we will have no checks and balances whatsoever," said Amir Fuchs, a senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

"We are already in a very fragile situation when we talk about human rights and our constitutional foundations because we have almost no checks and balances," Fuchs said.

Netanyahu, who returned to power after winning a Nov. 1 election, is on trial for corruption on charges he denies. Ahead of Levin's announcement, he said in a speech in Jerusalem that his new government will "undertake reforms that will protect the right balance between the three branches."

On Thursday, the Supreme Court is due to hear appeals against the appointment of ultra-Orthodox Jewish politician Aryeh Deri as cabinet minister despite his having been convicted of tax fraud.

Israel's opposition leader Yair Lapid said he would fight against the proposed measures and "cancel them when we return to power."

Writing by Dan Williams, Emily Rose; Editing by Howard Goller

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