Former Supreme Court president Aharon Barak broke a long media silence Tuesday to lash out at planned judicial reforms by Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, saying they will turn Israel into a :third world country."
Barak declined to give interviews when he finished his tenure in 2006, but he has now decided to speak out against proposed changes to Israel's legal system.
"I have had enough. I never believed things could happen at such a pace and with such intensity," said Barak adding that he hoped Daniel Friedmann would understand that his role as justice minister is to defend the legal system.
"I cannot say that Minister Friedmann's actions were a surprise to me, but nevertheless, they have surprised me. You know, that is how it is with death: It never surprises, but it comes as a surprise," added Barak.
He said he understood that Friedmann's appointment was dangerous when the minister set out to change the law in order to limit the Supreme Court president's term to only seven years, as it is for the presidents of other courts. This is seemingly a marginal, administrative change. But Barak says he understood "this is just a point on a chart, and the goal of the chart is damaging the status of the Supreme Court president."
"The straw that broke the camel's back" was when Friedmann sent Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch a letter stating that it was not written anywhere that the president runs the court system.
"Then I knew that he has a distorted view of the president's role. I understood he does not understand that the president is the one who shields the system from destructive influences," said Barak.
Friedmann's initiatives break down the wall and connect the political and the judicial, said Barak, and risk transforming Israel into a third-world country.
"What characterizes a third world country? These are nations with laws, but they do not enforce them since the countries act in keeping with the wishes of the powerful. The powerful can be the neighborhood bully or the government. But in both cases, the situation is the violent party wins," he said.
"Judges and court presidents will be subordinate administratively and institutionally to politicians. And slowly it will trickle down, because there will be erosion. Because without independent institutions, there is no personal independence."
Barak says if this is how Friedmann is acting now, "imagine what we can expect if his reforms are implemented. The Supreme Court president will lose her authority as head of the system, and judges will feel that the real source of power is the minister, the cabinet and the politicians. I suggest that every reader think carefully about the meaning of this change. It is a nightmare. It is the beginning of the end."
"Even if Friedmann thinks there are certain things that need to be fixed, it is impossible to fix by destroying. It is impossible to destroy the court and afterward collect the stones and rebuild. That is not how a friend behaves. That is how an enemy behaves."
Barak said the battle over the future of the Israeli justice system is being waged in three arenas: the independence of the judiciary, the choice of judges, and the authority of the court.
The judicial culture is one of the state's most impressive achievements, and it is not right to endanger this, said Barak.
For example, the initiative to change the make-up of the judicial appointments committee may result in judges being appointed based on political criteria, Barak said: The Labor Party will have its judges, and Shas will have its judges.
Regarding Friedmann's plan to restrict the right to appear before the High Court of Justice, Barak said the international trend is to expand such rights, not limit them. Limiting the right to petition the court will be a harsh blow to the fight for civil rights and against corruption, explained Barak, and would keep organizations such as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Movement for Quality Government from appearing in front of the court.
A long list of cases against corrupt politicians would never reach the court. The political culture in Israel does not pressure corrupt politicians to resign, and therefore the court's role is essential, Barak said.
Friedmann has been stopped for now, said Barak, and has not succeeded in changing the Basic Laws due to coalition commitments, as well as the intervention of the Labor Party and the Likud. But Barak is worried about what might happen when the coalition constraints weaken.
Friedmann is not doing his job properly, says Barak, and he is not appropriate for the post. Therefore, the government must take responsibility. "Danny Friedman will not change. ... He is a crusader and will not stop. Therefore, the prime minister, ministers and head of the opposition have a historic responsibility."
If Friedmann's initiatives advance, "the result will be a drastic change in the status of the Supreme Court to guarantee civil rights in Israel and guard the rule of law. Court appointments will become political, and the court will be limited in its ability to guarantee ethics and civil rights. It will be a castrated court. A dwarf court."
Barak rejected claims that the issues were personal, saying that if his legacy were changed for the right reasons he would be extremely happy, but that that is not the case right now. He said an enormous tsunami was being raised to wipe out the judicial system, and that the legislation was not designed to bypass Barak, but rather to bypass democracy.
He added that the while Friedmann's actions have been described as a response to the court's rulings under Barak that everything is judiciable, declaring things non-judiciable means the law can be violated. And who violates the law in such cases? Certainly not the weak, he said. This means the government can do as it pleases.
Even the blockade on Gaza is judiciable, he said. All the issues relating to Gaza and the West Bank are judiciable. And why? Because there is international law.
The fight is over the character of Israeli democracy, Barak said. A proper democracy is the rule of the majority and the rule of law. There is no democracy without the rule of the majority, but without the rule of law there is no democracy either, without a separation of powers and protection for the individual and minorities.
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