Chief Justice Raps Netanyahu for Trying to Curb Supreme Court’s Power

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Netanyahu at the Lod District Court, 2012.Credit: Nir Keidar

The Israeli president, the current and former Supreme Court presidents and the state attorney general on Wednesday all sharply criticized Likud’s legislative efforts to weaken the court.

Supreme Court President Miriam Naor noted that her team was “the last barrier against harm to human dignity.” She was speaking at a conference on human dignity as a constitutional principle; the event was held at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem.

Her words were echoed by former court presidents Aharon Barak and Asher Grunis as well as by Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. They were reacting to Likud's intentions to include in the coalition agreement two laws to weaken the Supreme Court. In response, Likud MK Yariv Levin called on senior members of the judicial system to refrain from trying to influence the coalition formation process.

Netanyahu has told all parties expected to join his governing coalition that he will include two bills as part of the coalition agreement. In the Supreme Court bill, Netanyahu wants to require a vote of at least nine justices out of eleven to rule a law unconstitutional.

In another bill, the majority on the Judicial Appointments Committee would shift to politicians from Supreme Court justices. The number of politicians on the panel would rise to six out of nine members, from four today.

Supreme Court President Miriam NaorCredit: Ilya Melnikov

Naor noted that in the weeks between the March 17 election and the forming of a government, “many question marks remained” — including on the legal system.

“The need for guarding human dignity, and the rights derived from this principle, are not an obvious thing. But the preservation of human dignity cannot be expressed at a level of declarations only,” she said.

“In our democratic system, the court is the last barrier against harm to human dignity and other fundamental rights. This is one reason Israel is seen as part of the family of democratic nations.”

As Naor put it, “For the principle of preserving human dignity to govern our lives in practice, not just serve as a declaration, the principle needs a watchman. This is the interest of all the country’s citizens and residents; it is the interest of the State of Israel.”

Naor later added: “It is hard to build and easy to destroy.”

President Reuven Rivlin warned at the conference against expanding the Judicial Appointments Committee, stressing that Israel should be guaranteeing a vibrant democracy. He said the proposal to bypass the High Court of Justice basically bypasses the Knesset and violates "the rules the Knesset made for itself."

Rivlin also noted his fear of the prospect of establishing a constitutional court. "Woe unto us if there will be a constitutional court," he said, "because then politicians could turn it into a political court."

Bypassing democracy

Aharon Barak, a former Supreme Court president, told Rivlin that Israel has a narrow, unstable constitution. To the degree that if the Knesset violates rights enshrined in the Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty, it is doing something illegal, and the court can be of assistance, and in that sense Israel has a constitution albeit it unofficially.

"There is no law to bypass the High Court of Justice. The problem is a law that bypasses democracy, in which the Knesset violates individual rights that the Knesset itself had determined harms democracy," he said. The method is not perfect, and there is room for improvement, but it's very good."

In response to the justices’ remarks, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said in a statement that he “opposed in the past and still opposes initiatives that could harm the independence and power of the Supreme Court and that “an independent Supreme Court is essential to the existence and strength of the State of Israel as a democracy. It promotes worthy values and human rights.”

Weinstein said that the Supreme Court contributed to the image of the State of Israel abroad as a properly run and progressive country and that it is one of Israel’s greatest assets. “The attorney general intends to stand guard in this matter,” the statement said.

In contrast, MK Levin told Kol Israel radio that democracy is not government of the judge but rather government of the people.

"Whoever thinks that judges have lofty abilities and lofty values that need to trump the will of the public does not believe in democracy."

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he still “aspires” to pass legislation allowing the Knesset to override Supreme Court rulings, despite the opposition of a key partner, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party.

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