Ron Dermer, Israel’s Minister of Strategic Affairs discusses country’s judicial reforms
Israel’s former ambassador to the US and now minister of strategic affairs responds to US and international criticism to country’s judicial reforms.
FIRST ON FOX: In an interview with Fox News Digital, Israel’s minister of strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, candidly discusses the criticism of the Biden administration and other nations in the Jewish state’s efforts to reform its judiciary.
Israel is engulfed in competing mass protests in support of and against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned overhaul of the judiciary. President Biden has assertively pushed back against Netanyahu’s efforts to rein in the power of the judiciary, sparking criticism from Republican lawmakers and Israelis.
Dermer, while not directly pointing the finger at Biden and other democratically elected world leaders, said, “I do believe that this is an internal matter in Israel, and I think it’s something that other democratic leaders should not weigh in on. And the prime minister has abided by that policy as prime minister. And I would encourage all leaders around the world to respect the decision of other democratic countries. It’s one thing when democratic leaders weigh in on countries that are non-democracies because the people don’t have a say in how they govern themselves.”
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President Joe Biden speaks and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Anna Moneymaker/Sean Gallup)
He added, “But these questions of how you’re going to govern yourself, what is the right balance that you want to find between the branches of government. The decisions of whether the pendulum has swung too much to one side and should move back to the other side. I think that should be left to the sovereign decisions of other democratic countries, and that should be respected.”
Dermer continued about the alleged meddling in domestic Israeli politics: “I don’t want to interfere in your politics just like we don’t want you to interfere in ours. What the prime minister has said is, he has a rule that he doesn’t get involved in the internal workings of other democracies. When you’re a leader of a country, you see all sorts of things that happen all around the world. “
Dermer, Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S., noted, “You can see protests in France over this or that decision by the French president. You may see protests in the United States over this or that decision. You may see disagreements between your executive branch of government and your judicial branch of government over this or that policy issue and all sorts of questions that you have about what is the right balance that you’re trying to find in the United States, which is a nearly 250-year-old country with institutions that are very, very well founded. You still have these tensions. But what we do is we try not to weigh in on those internal matters.”
An aerial photograph showing protesters outside Israel’s parliament on March 27. (Israeli Knesset)
Some American and Israeli critics have noted the application of a double standard to Israel. Some Democrats seek to pack the Supreme Court in the U.S. while attacking Israel’s efforts to reportedly depoliticize its Supreme Court.
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital, “As we have repeatedly made clear, President Biden, a lifelong friend of Israel, has publicly and privately expressed his views that major changes in a democracy, to be enduring, must have as broad a consensus as possible. ”
The State Department spokesperson added, “We will continue to engage our Israeli counterparts to strengthen the special bond between the United States and Israel and advance our shared democratic values, cooperating on a full range of issues while working through our differences and concerns like most other relationships.”
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A young man sits on a traffic light over a crowd of pro-reform protesters in Jerusalem on April 27, 2023. (Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Avi Bell, a professor of law at the University of San Diego and Bar Ilan University in Israel, and founding dean of the Israel Law and Liberty Forum’s annual program on law and democracy, told Fox News Digital, “The problem with Biden’s attack on judicial reform in Israel is that – as often happens when one jumps into democratic politics of another country – he’s got it all wrong, and is supporting the wrong side. By backing the anti-reformers, Biden is trying to push Israel toward exactly the kind of politicized judiciary he says he opposes in the U.S. In Israel, Biden is fighting against democracy, the rule of law and separation of powers. He’s undermining shared American values, and hurting Israel.”
Dermer laid out in laymen’s terms how and why reform is needed. “We had a good balance of power between the different branches of government for almost the first half century of the state. In the mid-90s, the courts started aggregating to itself more and more powers. And what you’ve seen in the last six or seven months after the last election is an attempt to restore this balance and to reduce judicial activism and by most criteria and standards. Legal experts will say that the activism in Israel’s Supreme Court is unlike in any other democratic country in the world. So what we’re trying to do is rein in that activism.”
In an anecdote about a member of Israel’s Knesset (parliament) meeting with former U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Dermer shined light on Scalia’s reaction to how the Jewish state allows a committee of largely judges and lawyers to select judges for its top court.
Ron Dermer speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference in Washington, D.C., on March 4, 2018. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)
“I’ll tell you that I heard the story the other day that a member or a senior member of our Knesset once had met with Justice Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at some event. This Knesset member was the head of our Law and Constitution Committee. And he tried to explain to Justice Scalia how we choose judges in Israel. And he thought Scalia thought that this member of Knesset was joking. He actually didn’t believe that this is how you choose judges in Israel. But that’s really how you choose judges in Israel. And it creates a problem because the judges are effectively just choosing themselves or they have an effective veto over the choice of new judges. And that is, I think, a violation of the separation of powers,” said Dermer.
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In late July, Netanyahu’s government passed its first judicial reform victory, in which it passed “The Reasonableness Standard Bill” in the Knesset to alter the legal standard judges use to reject or approve government legislation and executive decisions.
Dermer said the judiciary “put forward the reasonableness standard, which basically mean the judges can say that decision is unreasonable. Now, to the best of my knowledge, you don’t have something like that in the United States where the executive branch of your government can make a decision and the Supreme Court can weigh in not on the basis of a law or statute and say this violates that law’s statute, but basically say we feel that this decision is unreasonable and that is to take an entirely subjective standard and effectively replace the subjective views of 15 unelected judges for the views of the 120 members of the Israeli parliament who are elected in a country of 9 million people and a government that represents them as well.”
Israelis wave national flags during protest against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government to overhaul the judicial system, outside the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
He added the reasonableness standard has been used to substitute the views of judges for Israel’s elected leaders and the new law is the first step in changing the judiciary.
Israel’s Supreme Court announced this last week it will hear anti-judicial reform legal petitions that seek to strike down the newly passed Knesset law that modified the reasonableness standard.
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Bell, the legal expert on both American and Israeli law systems, said, “The proposed judicial reform in Israel is an attempt to limit overreach of Israel’s politicized Supreme Court by bringing back the rules of parliamentary democracy Israel had before the court declared a ‘constitutional revolution.’ If the full reform package is adopted, Israel will return to a government of checks and balances and democratic governance like the United Kingdom or Canada.”
Fox News’ Peter Petroff contributed to this article.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on Israel, Iran, Syria, Turkey and Europe. You can follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.