JERUSALEM—Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, who is on trial for corruption, ended his first week back in office embroiled in two new legal entanglements of his own creation.
On Thursday at the Supreme Court, he was forced to defend appointing a convicted tax fraud to two key posts, that of minister of interior and of minister of health.
A few hours earlier, across a Jerusalem rose garden at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Netanyahu’s justice minister announced a colossal judicial overhaul widely viewed as an attempt to overthrow Israel’s system of government, and save Netanyahu’s skin.
Former prime minister Ehud Barak, an opponent of Netanyahu, told The Daily Beast that the judicial reform was “a big lie covering up régime change.”
“He is trying to blackmail the country with threats to save himself from trial,” Barak said, adding that “it’s a straight line from [Al] Capone to where we are today.”
In an assessment echoed in some Israeli political and legal spheres, Haaretza liberal daily, declared that Netanyahu’s “judicial reform” amounted to “a régime coup in prime-time.”
Enacting the new judicial review, Haaretz‘s political analyst wrote, will result “in a government without any checks and balances, morals or reins, that will do anything and everything that crosses its crude mind.”
In a speech on Wednesday night, Netanyahu himself said he would undertake a “fundamental revision” of all the powers of government.
Justice Minister, Yariv Levin, said that an urgent correction was necessary after years of “rampant judicial overreach.”
“There are not only judges in Jerusalem,” Levin said, reaching for a Biblical phrase, “but the Knesset is here, too.”
At the heart of Israel’s crisis is the fate of an indicted prime minister, in the midst of a trial, whose hold on power depends on a coalition with another party leader, Aryeh Deri, a convicted criminal, who served two years in jail for corruption in the early 2000s. He was also convicted of tax fraud in February, 2022, and escaped jail as part of a plea deal in which he committed to remaining out of public life.
“The problem is the Knesset is granting itself unlimited power,” said Amir Fuchs, a professor of law affiliated with the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent Jerusalem think tank.
The result of Netanyahu’s proposed reforms would grant a simple majority of 61 out of the Knesset’s 120 members almost absolute power, with no judicial review.
Thursday’s fiery Supreme Court hearing, with an unusually large panel of eleven justices helmed by Chief Justice Esther Hayut, addressed multiple petitions against Deri’s appointment to the top jobs of interior minister and health minister.
“I think we need violence,” said Oren Moda’i, 62, a techie who took a day off work on Thursday to join a few hundred protesters outside the court. “We have no other recourse. Not murder, not that kind of violence, but breaking storefronts like the ‘gilets jaunes’ did in France. The problem is, the opposition has no leadership.”
Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the opposition leader, left for a weekend in Paris on Thursday morning, to significant criticism from his camp. He said on Wednesday night that the government, “like a gang of crooks,” had “put a loaded gun on the table. Yariv Levin did not propose reform, but a threat. They threaten to destroy the entire constitutional structure of the State of Israel.”
A major anti-government rally is scheduled for Saturday night, in Tel Aviv.
Among the reforms announced in a hurried last-minute press conference held on the eve of the Supreme Court’s hearing Thursday is a law allowing a parliamentary majority to overrule supreme court decisions, and another eliminating the “reasonability standard,” Israel’s version of a court ruling determining unconstitutionality.
Under current Israeli law, for example, the courts can disqualify as “unreasonable” any law that violates basic rights, such segregation among school children.
The coalition agreements underpinning Netanyahu’s new coalition, which includes radical extremists and religious nationalists, contain a US-inspired “discrimination law” which would explicitly allow businesses and physicians to refuse service to individuals who offend their religious beliefs.
In addition, Levin—in office under a week—announced his intention to transform the Judicial Selection Committee into a largely political entity, convert ministries legal counsels (currently career civil servants) into political appointments and pass yet another law, precluding the supreme court from striking down Basic Laws, Israel’s constitutional foundations.
Netanyahu’s new coalition numbers 64 members, a majority of whom serve in double roles, as legislators and as ministers or officials of the executive branch. It is a position to pass the proposed changes into law within weeks.
Despite his victory in the November, 2022 election, Netanyahu risks losing public support over the radical changes proposed by his cabinet, which are rejected by a solid majority of Israelis. Sixty-four percent expect street demonstrations to take hold against the government.
In a Twitter Space late Wednesday night, Professor Ido Baum, Director of the Brandeis Institute for Society Economy, and Democracy near Tel Aviv, said that Netanyahu’s judicial revolution “will amount to nothing less than a coup d’état. Poland and Hungary will be here. It will transform Israel’s DNA from its foundations.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Fuchs said the outcome of Netanyahu’s reforms “is that the majority coalition will be able to do what it wants, turning Israel into a questionable, illiberal democracy like what you see in Poland and in Hungary, in which the only remaining safeguard is a majority of the public, public opposition. The courts will no longer be able to protect LGBTQ rights, for example. The public will have to express its opinion.”
Fuchs said Israel’s future if the reform passes was akin to “mob rule.” Absolute majority rule. A hollowed-out democracy with elections as its only defining characteristic.”
Under Israeli law, a minister, if indicted on criminal charges—cannot remain in post. Netanyahu retained his ability to serve as prime minister by arguing that the role of prime minister differed essentially from the role of minister, granting him a loophole, but he remains liable to charges of conflict of interest due to his trial and involvement in the judicial review.
In a second phase of reforms, Levin is expected to create a new position, that of a public prosecutor who could decide no longer to pursue Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial, and to decriminalize fraud and breach of trust, two of the three charges for which he was indicted, along with bribery.
“We are in a state of emergency—Netanyahu has to decide if he wants to break the rules of the game or preserve the State of Israel,” said Benny Gantz, the head of another opposition party, who said the “state of emergency” triggered by the announced judicial reform demanded the formation of a committee composed of coalition and opposition legislators.