Israel's top judge slams govt 'attack' with judicial overhaul plans

Israel's top judge lashed out Thursday at the justice minister's controversial plans to overhaul the judicial system, calling it an "unbridled attack" in rare public criticism of the government.

Days after entering office as part of Israel's most right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Yariv Levin announced last week a series of moves to allow politicians to override the Supreme Court's decisions and change the way judges are appointed.

"The justice minister's new plan is not one to fix the legal system, but to crush it," Supreme Court president Esther Hayut said at a legal conference, in remarks relayed by the court administration.

"This is an unbridled attack on the legal system, as if it were an enemy that should be swarmed on and overwhelmed."

Judges in Israel are not permitted to publicly comment on political issues. Earlier on Thursday, Israeli lawyers demonstrated in Tel Aviv against Levin's plans.

Responding to Hayut's remarks, Levin accused her of promoting a "political agenda" and striving to "incite riots".

"The reform I presented will make Israel a functioning Western democracy again. It will ensure a varied legal system that reflects the entire nation," Levin said in televised remarks.

"I am committed to a dialogue with all parts of the country to reach the best and most balanced results," he said.

- 'Damage to rule of law' -

Levin wants to hand more powers to members of parliament in appointing judges, which are currently picked through a panel of magistrates, lawyers and politicians, under the supervision of the justice ministry.

He has also proposed a "derogation clause", which would allow parliament to annual a Supreme Court decision with a simple majority.

Analysts say such a clause could allow lawmakers to uphold any annulment of the corruption charges facing Prime Minister Netanyahu, should parliament vote to absolve him and the Supreme Court then rule against it.

Around 400 demonstrators joined a rally earlier on Thursday organised by lawyers outside a Tel Aviv court, an AFP journalist said, some waving Israeli flags.

Wearing her black robe, lawyer Orna Sher said the "dangerous" proposals by Levin were a threat to democracy.

"The nomination of judges will be political. Courts won't be independent, but controlled by politicians," the 66-year-old said outside the district court.

In an open letter published Thursday, a group of former state attorneys and attorneys general said they were "shocked" by Levin's programme.

"We call on the government to retract the plan it published and prevent the severe damage to the court system and rule of law," wrote the 11 senior jurists, many of whom also served as Supreme Court judges.

Announcing his reform programme last week, Levin said it is "up to the elected government to decide the laws".

But the proposals were slammed Monday as "radical regime change" by opposition chief Yair Lapid, who said the plans amount to the "elimination of democracy".

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