The brains behind Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul
By Patrick Kingsley
When Israeli lawmakers passed a deeply contentious law last Monday (24) to weaken the Supreme Court, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not linger in the voting chamber to celebrate.
Instead, the justice minister, Yariv Levin, an architect of the legislation, stayed to pose for selfies with fellow lawmakers as Netanyahu walked sombrely from the room. Levin, not the prime minister, made a celebratory speech from the podium.
“We have made the first step in the important historic process of repairing the justice system,” Levin said. The prime minister was no longer there to hear him.
To the world, Netanyahu — Israel’s longest-serving leader — is the face of his government’s judicial overhaul, a multipart effort that has limited the Supreme Court’s influence over lawmakers and could yet give the government more control over who sits on the court.
In Israel, the law’s main champion has been Levin, whose solemn demeanour conceals a rigid belief in sweeping judicial change. His influence within Netanyahu’s coalition has raised questions about the prime minister’s true grip on power and aroused speculation that Levin could one day succeed him.
For most of his career, Netanyahu was a proponent of judicial independence, and changed position only after being investigated for corruption in 2017 and placed on trial three years later, a prosecution that continues today. But Levin entered politics to reshape the judiciary, making it the subject of his maiden speech to parliament in 2009.
“It’s something that Yariv Levin was dreaming of for decades,” said Simcha Rothman, a fellow lawmaker in the coalition and another architect of the law.
Levin’s popularity within Netanyahu’s party, Likud, helps to explain why the prime minister has charged ahead with the overhaul, despite setting off perhaps the gravest domestic crisis in Israeli history — provoking street unrest, mass resignations within the military reserve, fears among investors and wide rifts in society.
Levin’s upbringing among prominent right-wing leaders helps illustrate the historic grievances that compound these social tensions. And his more immediate motivations for seeking judicial change show why the standoff has become a proxy for a much wider dispute over how to build a state that is both Jewish and democratic.
Throughout his 14 years in parliament, Levin has consistently proposed overhauling the court’s membership and diminishing its role because, in his view, it does not prioritize Israel’s Jewish character.
As a secular Jew, his animus differs from that of ultra-Orthodox Jewish allies, who resent the court for opposing the financial subsidies and exemptions from military service that some governments have awarded their community.
Levin is a hard-line nationalist who opposes Palestinian statehood, and he has condemned the court for making it easier for Arab families to move to Jewish neighbourhoods within Israel; for evicting Israelis from some Jewish settlements in the occupied territories; and for allowing Palestinians to use a major highway in the West Bank that was previously only open to Israeli citizens.
The court seeks to build an Israel that is “no longer a Jewish state under whose aegis a democratic life is lived, but rather a democratic state in which, insofar as is possible, a Jewish life is also lived,” Levin said in his first speech to parliament.
“I shall act to restore the justice system to the classic Zionist track,” he added, “so that, in the Jewish-democratic equation, the Jewish character of the state will receive the decisive weight it deserves.”
Levin, 54, declined several interview requests for this article, but friends, allies and former colleagues said the central tenets of his political outlook were forged while he was a teenager.
Levin was born in 1969 in Jerusalem. His “sandak,” Hebrew for godfather, was Menachem Begin, a leader of the Israeli right who was ostracized for years by the country’s left-leaning establishment until becoming prime minister in 1977.
Levin’s great-uncle helped command the Altalena, a ship that ferried arms to Begin’s right-wing Jewish militia during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The ship was notoriously wrecked that summer by the official Israeli armed forces, during a tussle for influence in the early weeks of the state’s existence, an episode that remains hurtful to the Israeli right.
By the time Levin was conscripted to a military intelligence unit in the late 1980s, these unhealed sores had left him resentful of the aristocratic class that dominated the state at Begin’s expense, according to Yuval Elbashan, a fellow conscript who has remained in close contact with Levin for more than three decades.
“He was against all the elites,” said Elbashan, now a law professor, who shared a room with Levin. “It’s still their state, in Yariv Levin’s opinion.”
After Elbashan joined Levin at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where they were both law undergraduates in the early 1990s, he found that Levin’s anger at elites had consolidated into a specific resentment of the Supreme Court. At the time, parliament had just passed a law that gave the Supreme Court far greater leeway to strike down future legislation. The court’s top judges had greeted it with enthusiasm — enraging Levin.
“He became like a prophet,” Elbashan recalled.
Levin began work as a commercial lawyer in 1996, quickly dovetailing his legal career with political activism for Likud. He joined the board of the Israeli Bar Association in 1999, as part of a diverse slate led by a left-wing lawyer, Shlomo Cohen, and later became vice president.
Even then, Levin’s antipathy toward the court was clear. After the retirement in 2006 of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, the judge most associated with the expansion of the court’s powers, Levin persuaded his association colleagues to snub Barak by scrapping the custom of publishing a book in honour of the departing chief justice, said Cohen, then the association’s president.
“He’s a very honest guy — what you see is what you get,” said Cohen, who remains in touch with Levin despite their differences. “He was almost obsessively critical of what he erroneously perceived to be judicial activism.”
Levin’s calls for judicial change were long ignored by more moderate members of Netanyahu’s coalition, including Netanyahu himself.
When offered the justice ministry in 2015, Levin turned it down because he feared coalition allies would stymie his vision, according to Elbashan, who spoke to him at the time.
“If he can become minister of justice, but he can’t do what he thinks, he would prefer not to do it,” said Elbashan.
Levin’s chance finally arrived last November, when Netanyahu was re-elected to power at the helm of an exclusively right-wing coalition.
Netanyahu then formed a government drawn mainly from ultranationalists, settler leaders, ultra-Orthodox Jewish leaders and Netanyahu loyalists angry at the judiciary’s decision to prosecute him for corruption.
Backed by coalition leaders who all had reasons to support his vision, Levin seized the moment, unveiling his plan on Jan. 4, just a week into the government’s term.
His initial plan would have given the government more control over the selection of Supreme Court judges and allowed parliament to overrule the court’s decisions.
Those proposed changes set off what has become one of the longest-lasting mass protest movements in Israeli history, forcing Netanyahu to halt the plan in March against Levin’s wishes.
They returned in early July with a different bill to strip the court of one of the judicial tools it uses to overrule government decisions. Once again, it prompted a huge surge of protest, and there were hopes among the opposition that Netanyahu would again suspend the legislation.
But this time, the prime minister seemed unwilling or unable to restrain Levin.
The justice minister has his own base among Likud members, finished first in Likud’s primaries last year, and is considered a possible future party leader.
If Netanyahu halts the overhaul, analysts say it could prompt Levin’s resignation — potentially collapsing the coalition.
Elbashan, who has helped lead mediation efforts between the government and opposition, says the coalition could survive his departure. But Netanyahu nevertheless wants to placate him because he has few more shrewd or loyal ministers, Elbashan said.
“If you ask me, Yariv is the one who is in control,” said Elbashan. “Yariv is very valuable to Netanyahu, so valuable that I’m not sure that Netanyahu can do without him.”
During last-minute efforts to compromise, Levin, not Netanyahu, seemed to have the biggest say.
Moments before the final vote in Parliament last Monday, the defence minister, Yoav Gallant, one of the government’s most moderate members, pleaded with Levin to change his mind, live television footage showed.
Netanyahu watched in near silence, largely a passive witness.
And Levin shrugged.
-New York Times