'Degrading and Unrestrained': Chief Justice Slams Netanyahu Government's Assault on Legal System

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit says lawmakers should oppose Netanyahu's bill to curb powers of High Court, denies persecuting PM

Chief Justice Esther Hayut at the Bar Association meeting, May 27, 2019.
Liav Peled

Supreme Court President Esther Hayut slammed on Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to curb the power of the High Court, with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit echoing her criticism.

Speaking at a Bar Association meeting in Eilat, Hayut said: "A year and a half ago the prime minister said a strong and independent court is necessary and that he supports dialogue between authorities. What has changed? Has anything happened since then that justifies a move away from these principles? I think not."

>> Read more: How a bill to override Israel's top court would help Netanyahu ■ Netanyahu’s assault on judiciary will lead to rule without restraint | Analysis

Hayut also condemned statements by ministers and lawmakers against the judicial system, saying there is a significant gap between a respectful conversation and "the degrading, lowly and unrestrained discourse that characterized the election campaign and that continues to accompany the negotiations around forming the government."

Hayut said the status of the judicial system and the courts "is not political."

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the Bar Association meeting, May 27, 2019.
Liav Peled

Mendelblit, who recommended indicting Netanyahu in three corruption cases pending a hearing that will be held in October, echoed Hayut's sentiment. Speaking of Netanyahu's move to curb the power of the courts, Mendelblit said that "if such an initiative exists, it needs to be opposed."

He said,  however, that he does not believe the judicial system is change-proof and that clauses to curb its power can be discussed "as long as the changes are considered without ulterior motives."

In response to accusation by Netanyahu's Likud party that the decision to indict the prime minister is "political persecution" and a "witch-hunt," Mendelblit said the claims are "nonsense" and that he cares only about the rule of law and operates in accordance "with professional considerations only."

Ayelet Shaked at the Israel Bar Association conference, May 27, 2019.
May Binstock Oron

Hayut and Mendelblit were referring to the prime minister's plan to advance a far-reaching bill that would allow the Knesset and government ministers to ignore rulings of the High Court of Justice in administrative matters, not just in cases where it strikes down legislation. Such legislation would essentially neutralize the Supreme Court in its capacity as the High Court of Justice – something Netanyahu has never publicly supported – by turning its decisions into suggestions instead of legally binding rulings.

Speaking about the campaign leading up to the April 9 election, Hayut referred to, among other things, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's plan to reform the judicial system by changing the way Supreme Court justices are appointed and curb the court's powers. She ran under the slogan "Shaked will rule over the High Court."

Speaking after Hayut at the Bar Association meeting, Shaked said: "Those who think every little change in the checks and balances spells the end of democracy – stop crying and whining!"

On Thursday, former Supreme Court presidents Aharon Barak and Dorit Beinisch harshly criticized Netanyahu and his supporters' moves to prevent the court from intervening in Knesset decisions.

"I think that if I were the Supreme Court president today, I would consider resigning. The Supreme Court's main role is to protect democracy and the constitution, which it can't fulfill when it lacks the tools to do so," Barak told Channel 13 News.