Livni and Deri Close Deal on Appointment of Rabbinic Judges

Habayit Hayehudi, Tzohar rabbis come out losers in favor of more conservative dayanim

Yair Ettinger
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Justice Minister Tzipi Livni in May.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Yair Ettinger

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu courts the ultra-Orthodox for his next coalition, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has reached understandings with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri on an urgent political issue – the appointment of rabbinic judges. Livni plans to convene the rabbinic judges’ selection committee after a long time of inaction, and solve a severe shortage of rabbinic judges in the regional rabbinic courts and the Supreme Rabbinical Court.

Six dayanim, or rabbinic judges, will be appointed to the Supreme Rabbinical Court. Fifteen will be appointed to regional rabbinical courts and a director general will be appointed to manage the courts. According to the agreement, the director general of the rabbinical courts will be Rabbi Moshe Amsalem, a rabbinic judge from Ashdod. He was chosen over Rabbi Shimon Yaakovi, who serves as the legal adviser to the rabbinical courts and was recommended by Supreme Court justices.

If the list should be approved at the selection committee meeting scheduled for this coming Tuesday, Livni will take credit for the appointment of three rabbinic judges to the Supreme Rabbinical Court – Rabbi Eliyahu Abergel, a long-serving rabbinic judge in Jerusalem; Rabbi Uriel Lavi, the rabbinic judge from Safed who issued a precedent-setting religious ruling this year granting a get, or writ of religious divorce, to a woman whose husband has been comatose for years; and Rabbi Eliyahu Haishrik, a rabbinic judge from Tel Aviv who, it seems, will also be appointed. All three candidates have support from women’s-rights groups. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has had to accept the appointment of Lavi, whom he opposed with all his might since he issued the ruling that unilaterally granted the woman a divorce.

The chief rabbi and Deri received other substantial achievements in exchange, such as the appointment of rabbinic judge Yaakov Zamir, whom they supported as a candidate for the Supreme Rabbinical Court. The main thing they received was Livni’s decision to accept their veto on three candidates who had been supported by rabbinical group Tzohar, women’s groups and, apparently, Habayit Hayehudi – Rabbi Benayahu Bronner, Rabbi David Bass (both have been candidates for the rabbinical court for years) and Rabbi Nir Vargon.

Shas, which is in the opposition and has a strong presence on the committee also due to the rabbinic judges who are members of the party, defeated Habayit Hayehudi, a senior partner in the coalition of which Livni is also a member. Officials close to Livni have admitted that the move has something to do with the recent tension in the coalition. Livni gave the Ashkenazi Haredim an achievement of their own with the anticipated appointment of rabbinic judge Nachum Shmuel Gurtler, who is considered to be conservative.

Safed Rabbinical Court Judge Uriel LaviCredit: Courtesy / Rabbincal Court

In recent years, the rabbinic judges’ selection committee has been trying to distribute the appointments along sectorial and political lines – to rabbinic judges supported by Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi. It looks like the upcoming appointment will follow suit as well, with Habayit Hayehudi “winning” two of the six appointments to the Supreme Rabbinical Court, together with five of the 15 anticipated appointments to regional rabbinical courts.

But the big decisions were clearly made during the talks that Livni and her people held with Deri and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who are working with one another (officially, Shas’s representative on the committee is MK Eli Yishai) and not with Habayit Hayehudi.

No new rabbinic judges have been appointed since 2011. The severe shortage of judicial panels even led to the submission of a petition against Livni, the chairwoman of the selection committee, to the High Court of Justice for having done nothing to change the situation. The committee’s meeting was put off repeatedly during its term because of lack of ability to reach an early agreement on who the rabbinic judges would be.

Livni’s associates have been accelerating their efforts over the past few days, apparently because of the turmoil in the coalition. Shas had been willing to compromise on Lavi’s appointment for fear that the composition of the selection committee would change soon, and also because of the expected replacement of the Israel Bar Association’s representatives on the committee.

Tzohar officials are furious with Livni, who made a sudden decision to convene the selection committee, even as she reached understandings with Deri and Rabbi Yosef, when she could have reached understandings with Habayit Hayehudi on the appointment of more lenient rabbinic judges, such as ones who support pre-nuptial agreements that can prevent situations in which husbands refuse to give their wives religious divorces, keeping them agunot – chained – in dead marriages, unable to remarry.

Livni almost certainly would have had this option if she had waited for the new Bar Association representatives to replace the outgoing ones, strengthening the committee’s liberal side. Now it looks like only some of her candidates will be chosen.