Four new justices were picked for the Supreme Court on Friday by the Judicial Appointments Committee, in a session whose brevity belied the recent controversy over the candidates and the selection process.
The newly minted justices, who were chosen in a meeting lasting not more than 90 minutes, are the Dean of the Tel Aviv University law school, Daphne Barak-Erez; Jerusalem District Court Deputy President Zvi Zylbertal, Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg and Tel Aviv District Court Judge Uri Shoham.
The decision confounded commentators who believed that Friday's session would be unproductive, partly because of the difficulty in agreeing on the candidates. In November the justices on the appointment committee - Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and justices Miriam Naor and Asher Dan Grunis - said that in light of the attacks against the Supreme Court and the fact that Sohlberg had been painted as the candidate of the right, tainting the court with party politics, the public mood was not conducive to picking new justices.
Zylbertal and Sohlberg will start their terms in a few weeks, replacing retiring justices Ayala Procaccia and Edmond Levy. Shoham's term will start after Beinisch retires, at the end of February. Barak-Erez's appointment will take effect in May, after the retirement of Justice Eliezer Rivlin.
Barring a change to the arrangement according to which the justice with the most seniority is named president of the Supreme Court, Sohlberg and Barak-Erez, respectively, will take up the mantle sometime in the next decade.
Zylbertal, Sohlberg and Barak-Erez were approved unanimously by the nine committee members. Sohlberg received eight votes, with Israel Bar Association representative Khaled Hosni Zoabi abstaining. Hosni Zoabi told Haaretz after the vote that his abstention reflects his personal views only. "As soon as I was appointed to the committee I expressed my positions, according to my own take on things," he said.
Over the past several days Beinisch, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and the appointments committee reached a compromise over the candidates that would satisfy both the judges and lawyers on one hand, and Neeman and politicians on the other. Each appointment requires the approval of at least seven of the nine members of the committee.
Committee members said after the vote that it was obvious that the compromise deal would include both Sohlberg, who lives in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut and is considered a candidate of the right, and Zylbertal, who is in Beinisch's circle.
There was also a consensus that at least one of the other two candidates be of Mizrahi origin, in light of recent criticism about the absence from the nominees' list, and from the Supreme Court bench itself since the resignation in October of Justice Edmond Levy, of a candidate of North African or Middle Eastern Jewish origin. Shoham fills that slot; Nazareth District Court vice president, Judge Yitzhak Cohen, was a contender for the slot, as was former Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, who said he did not want to be considered as a specifically Mizrahi candidate.
Most committee members said after Friday's session that both camps made compromises and that there were no outright winners or losers. That said, the choice of Barak-Erez was considered a victory for Beinisch. It is both a counterweight to the right-leaning Sohlberg, and a selection that cannot be taken for granted in light of the right-wing identification of Neeman and the three politicians on the committee.
Sources in the Supreme Court said over the weekend that Beinisch was satisfied with the selection process and the appointment of candidates with a range of views who would contribute to the liberal, pluralistic character of the court. The Legal Forum for the Land of Israel issued a statement applauding Sohlberg's appointment as the "righting of an injustice" and saying, "Those who tried to disqualify Sohlberg because he is religious and a resident of Gush Etzion received a resounding answer." The announcement dismissed Hosni Zoabi's abstention from the vote as "not properly representing the interests" of Israel's lawyers.
Barak-Erez is considered a liberal and a supporter of judicial activism. Her candidacy was supported by former Israel Bar Association head Yori Geiron and attorney Rachel Ben Ari. Ben Ari is the second IBA representative on the appointments committee, together with Hosni Zoabi.
The person who paid the price of the deal between the two camps was Tel Aviv District Court President Dvora Berliner, who has been a Supreme Court nominee since 2007, after serving a temporary term on the bench. Berliner was on the short list for a previous deal that did not go through, when she was "sold" to each camp as belonging to it. She became a casualty of the need for a Mizrahi candidate on one hand and someone to balance Sohlberg's political leanings on the other.
Sources close to the workings of the committee said Neeman agreed to Barak-Erez in order to get Sohlberg onto the court.
"With the current composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee, where the two candidates of the Israel Bar Association identified with the Beinisch camp, Neeman realized he should agree to Barak-Erez's appointment because he couldn't be sure what will happen after Beinisch retires," one source said.
The choice of Barak-Erez also ends a long series of confrontations within the committee over the past several years in connection to appointing academics, as opposed to active judges, to the Supreme Court. During the tenure of former chief justice Aharon Barak, then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni wanted to name Prof. Ruth Gabison to the bench. More recently, Livni's successor at the Justice Ministry, Daniel Friedman, sought the appointment of Prof. Nili Cohen over the objections of Beinisch.
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