Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (centre) attends a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem. Image Credit: AFP

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to reorder the panel for selecting judges such that his hard-right government’s sway over Supreme Court appointments would increase, according to draft legislation published on Wednesday.

Judicial reforms sought by Netanyahu, whose nationalist-religious coalition was sworn in last month, have stirred worry within Israel and abroad for the country’s democratic health. Netanyahu says he will preserve the judiciary’s independence.

The panel for selecting judges now comprises three Supreme court justices, two cabinet ministers, two parliamentarians and two lawyers. At least a 7-2 vote is required to approve an appointment, a threshold designed to encourage compromise.

Under the bill drawn up by Justice Minister Yariv Levin, the panel would be expanded to 11 members, who would be able to approve appointments by a bare majority of six votes in favour.

With seven of the members envisaged by Levin being aligned with or brought in by the government, Netanyahu and his allies would potentially be ensured an automatic majority.

Critics suspect the bill is a bid by Netanyahu or his religious-nationalist coalition partners to pave the way for laws that might encroach on secular-liberals and minorities.

“This is not legal reform. It is radical regime change,” tweeted opposition leader Yair Lapid on Sunday, when details of Levin’s initiative were leaked to Israeli media.

Proponents of the reform accuse the top court of overreach.

“I am calling for a calming of the public discourse,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks on Wednesday. “The essence of democracy, beyond the separation of powers and of course majority rule, is respect for civil rights.” The number of lawmakers on the panel would be expanded to three, with two of them from the coalition, and the number of participating cabinet ministers would also be expanded to three.

Replacing the two lawyers would be two “public figures” chosen by the justice minister - just one a lawyer.

Standard of review

Levin’s legislation would further rein in the Supreme Court by requiring a unanimous ruling to overturn basic laws - Israel’s quasi-constitution - passed by parliament.

It would also remove “reasonableness” as a standard of review for Supreme Court rulings against government authorities.

The panel for appointing judges currently requires at least a 7-to-2 vote to remove someone from the bench. In the expanded 11-member panel sought by Levin, that would require at least nine votes.

Meanwhile, former Israeli top legal officials spoke out Thursday against sweeping reforms to the country’s justice system, lending their voices to a growing outcry against the proposed overhaul.

Seven former attorneys general who have served in the post throughout the last five decades — including two appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose justice minister is spearheading the reforms — signed a letter of protest, along with four other former senior legal officials. The letter, published in Israeli media, denounced the proposed changes, saying they are destructive to the country’s legal system.

“We call on the government to withdraw the proposed plan and prevent the serious harm to the justice system and the rule of law,” the letter said.

The former officials said the reforms would turn the Supreme Court, often the last recourse for Israelis and Palestinians seeking to challenge what they see as discriminatory policies, into a “pseudo-political body that would be suspected of bending the law in favour of the government.”