Israel’s judicial reform plans are ‘deeply alarming’, the International Bar Association warns

The IBA's president urges measures that would 'strip Israeli institutions of their ability to constrain executive power' to be dropped

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu wants to overhaul the country's judiciary Shutterstock

Proposed reforms to the Israeli justice system would seriously undermine the independence of the judiciary and dismantle legal checks on executive power, the International Bar Association’s (IBA's) president, Almudena Arpón de Mendívil Aldama, has warned.

In a statement on Friday, which came amid ongoing mass protests against the plans and opposition from a raft of top law firms, De Mendívil Aldama said the measures "would have the effect of completely dismantling external and internal checks on the executive". She called for the reforms to be abandoned and for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's administration to reaffirm Israel's commitment to the rule of law.

First tabled in January by justice minister and deputy prime minister Yariv Levin, the proposals would give the government greater powers over judicial appointments, enable it to override Supreme Court decisions and change the court’s ability to review government decisions judicially.

De Mendívil Aldama, said: "These reforms will curb legitimate oversight of the actions of government and the Knesset, leaving the executive free to use its power in a potentially arbitrary and discriminatory manner. While every system can at times benefit from reforms, the proposals are deeply alarming as they all move in the same direction, stripping Israeli institutions of their ability to constrain executive power."

She warned that such legislation would place Israel outside of the boundaries of modern democracies.

The reforms have the backing of the ultra-Orthodox right, which argues the package will enhance democratic input into judicial selection and practice, while taking a conservative and balanced approach to judicial review. The Israeli government says its aim is to restore the balance of power between the government and Israel's top court.

However, there have been widespread protests, including some witnessed by international lawyers during this year's Tel Aviv Arbitration Week, the country's flagship arbitration event, which took place earlier this month. Over the weekend, Netanyahu sacked his defence minister, Yoav Gallant, after he called on the Israeli leader to pause the plans and warned publicly that the reforms posed "a clear and present danger to Israel's security".

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Opposition figures say the reforms would effectively destroy the independence of the judiciary and Israel's chief legal adviser, the attorney general, Gali Baharav-Miara, has said they are a conflict of interest for Netanyahu himself, who is on trial for alleged corruption.

Baharav-Miara told the prime minister in a recent letter: "The legal situation is clear: you must refrain from any involvement in initiatives to change the judiciary, including the makeup of the committee for the appointment of judges, as such activity is a conflict of interest."

She is backed by all her living former predecessors, who wrote: "We're convinced that it does not herald an improvement of the system, but threatens to destroy it."

Israel Bar Association president Avi Himi said Israelis should challenge the reforms. At the same time, 17 of Israel's most prominent commercial law firms published a joint statement, saying the changes would harm "the resilience and independence of the justice system". 

Israel's president Isaac Herzog said in a recent television address the country was "in the throes of a profound crisis". He outlined compromise proposals, which the government rejected.

Tamar Krongrad, an Israeli tech lawyer specialising in cross-border commercial practice, commended the IBA's statement on LinkedIn: “Thank you for recognising this judicial coup for what it is.”

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